Monthly Archives: July 2005

“Letters from Thailand”

Stereotypes, so they say, usually have some basis somewhere in fact and if there’s one stereotype that proves this point it is that of the cynical complaining expat. Plop yourself down on any bar stool at any popular farang haunt in Bangkok (which will be the ones with the bar stools as farang alone seem to have a preference for sitting perched on these uncomfortable stools hanging over their beer) and you’re bound to be regaled with enough complaints about Thailand to leave you wondering at the end of the night if, in fact, you have been living in the same place as this poor afflicted creature.

Personally, I don’t regret my decision to come here for a moment, however if there’s one complaint I would raise it is that, from a writer’s standpoint, there is not exactly a brilliant literary scene here. I’m not slagging the comic books either. I was vaguely familiar with the graphic novels back home and can appreciate the punk nature of many of them (a great example is the fantastic “Sin City” film based on a classic series of graphic novels by Frank Miller of the same name) but in terms of novels, especially those in English, there’s just not much.

There are a slew of expat books written by the likes of Christopher G. Moore, Stephen Leather, Dean Barrett, and many others but if you’re looking for the rebirth of Graeme Greene in these you’ll be sorely depressed. “Expat lit” contains numerous “thrillers”, humour pieces and any other genre contrivance imaginable to work in a master’s like knowledge of this country’s bar girl scene (and there are ‘serious books’ about that too such as the awful Patpong Sisters). The title of a recent Dean Barrett book: “The Go-Go Dancer who stole my Viagra”, tells you pretty much what there is to know about the ex-pat lit scene.

On the Thai side, I’m sure there’s great stuff being written, but try tracking down an English translation and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything. When I asked the staff at my favourite Khao San Road bookshop where their Thai literature section was I was directed to a shelf of expat lit and antiquated stuff like “Fanny and the Regent of Siam”, (a follow-up to the banned “Anna and the King” tale).

While they may be a bit hard to track down, one novel originally written in Thai and translated into English, which I read recently and couldn’t put down, made me want to read more Thai-lit and perhaps brush my reading skills up beyond the point where I can just about almost navigate the book “Mr Rooster’s day at the barn”.

That book is “Letters from Thailand”, by Chinese-born Thai female writer Botan and translated by Susan Fulop Kepner, an academic on Southeast Asian studies from UCLA. The book won the SEAwrite award, was a critical smash and, if the publicity is correct, was actually (is?) used in the Thai educational curriculum to help Thais understand a foreigner’s perspective of living in Thailand in particular that of Chinese immigrants.

Botan set the book up as a series of letters from a Chinese immigrant living in Thailand to his mother living in China and it takes place in Bangkok from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. The ever-loving son sends dozens of letters to his mother (though they thin out as the years progress because she never responds) telling of his tireless attempts to attain prosperity in his new land, of the family he comes to have and the changing mores of society he is forced to deal with.

The book is well written, the dry humour of the narrator at times had me laughing out loud, but it offers a far from fawning picture of the land of smiles. The narrator in Botan’s book comes across all sorts of social vices that leave this boy fresh from the pre-cultural revolution countryside in China with his mouth agape in bewilderment and disgust.

These are the same social vices that plague Thai society to this day, some of which have been the subject of His Majesty the King’s birthday speeches, such as gambling, growing debt . . . even cigarette smoking among teens is dealt with here! Corruption is covered in an excellent sequence detailing the work of Bangkok’s immigration police during those days, fellas who no doubt passed down the secret ways of the job to their modern day contemporaries at Thailand’s borders.

Sex is wonderfully and carefully (remember he’s writing his poor aged mother in China) dealt with here. Without going into too much detail, a beach trip for the narrator to Hua Hin is ruined when on an evening stroll he happens upon a teenage couple…. enjoying one another’s company without the presence of a chaperone. Prostitution is covered – the narrator’s son convinces himself that he is in love with a veteran prostitute, and the family gives her a limited welcome, even with the narrator in a surprising turn saying that Thai society is too hard on these people. The results are hilarious.

With all of these social vices basically laid bare in the text and discussed frankly, Letters from Thailand requires a Thai reader, even an expat with a warm spot in his heart for the place, to have a thick skin. That’s the value of this book. When someone tells me only the positives on any given subject, to me they’re robbing that subject of its worth and I go into “uh-oh I’m being sold a crappy used-car” mode. No worry of that here.

This is the most jarring sample I could find of what I’m talking about:

“Yet people praise Thailand as a land of peace, of endless smiles and yellow-robed Buddhist monks; of people whose culture is deeply ingrained, and who follow the five moral precepts faithfully. Yet I have seen men kill and torture animals here in ways I had never conceived of before. They raise a kind of fish whose only reason for living is to tear each other to pieces before cheering spectators. The people love cockfights, ox fights, fish fights – any fight! They steal and gamble, and lie with each other’s wives.

The famous Thai smile is only frosting on the cake; what the cake is like, only those who have tasted it know. Thailand’s greatest admirers are those who have spent two days in the country, mostly foreigners who have no idea of what life here really is. They nod wisely and say that the Thai “really know how to live” and “know the value of an easy life”. They do not guess to what extremes of laziness and irresponsibility this philosophy is carried, or how great is the disregard for order and civilized behaviour.”

Before I am driven out of Thai-blogs.com on a rail, I should add that the character in the book who comes out looking the best in the end is actually a hard working and intelligent young Thai teacher who refuses to take any of his rich Chinese father-in-law’s money, is deeply moral, and is committed to proving himself in a tough and changing world.

The narrator also is grateful for the prosperity that he has attained in Thailand and as he relaxes about guarding the old Chinese traditions he brought with him from his home village, he seems to gradually develop a guarded fondness for the country.

Towards the end of the book the narrator, possibly in an example of this growing appreciation for cultures other than his own, quotes another character, in what was a popular expression at the time after the birth of a new-born:

“Let my child have the diligence of the Chinese, the morality of the farang, and the heart of a Thai”.

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You can buy this book online at amazon.com

Would Aliens speak Thai?

“Hope soars!”

-shouts the Metro Express headline as I grab a copy and hurry into the station to catch my train. Once again American and the World is caught up to watch – held breathless- as mankind leaves the Earth behind. Despite dangers and risks and those that we have already lost the space shuttle Discovery finally launched again into orbit as we reach for the stars and endless dreams of what is out there.

Earlier this summer I took my Thai friend Bo and some of his friends from Bangkok on a tour of the monuments and museums here in DC. We got on the subject of the Air and Space Museum where I used to work among all the very cool and actual artifacts, planes and spacecraft that have made history. We even have a Space Shuttle on display now in the museum! I wondered out loud how long before there is a Thai astronaut.

Deep silence and strange looks passed between Bo and his friends before they started laughing.

What was so funny? The Japanese have had astronauts go into space with NASA and so has China. In fact both countries are almost ready to send spacemen into orbit on their own, why not Thailand?

“Thai people aren’t into that” Bo said but the subject was dropped and changed to a chorus of “I’m tired” and “It’s too hot” and “We walk forever where can we get a drink?” before I could ask why he said that….

Perhaps Bo and his friends ‘twenty-something’ generation may not dream of going to the stars when they gaze up in the sky at night but there is always hope for the next generation. Recently some Thai scouts for the first time for SE Asia got to talk by radio to real life astronauts on the International Space Station. Who knows what Thai boy or girl may be inspired today to reach for the moon tomorrow and one day actually land there.

Imagine what that might be like with Thai people in space. I can picture Muay Thai in zero gravity, those lethal punches and graceful kicks even more graceful and beautiful in slow motion like the space ballet scene from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also I figure if Thais know how to handle using a real Thai style toilet then when you have to go to the hong nam (ห้องนำ bath room) in space won’t be a problem!

Actually many of you may be surprised to know Thailand has already made it into space and has in fact traveled beyond our solar system on a path that will one day leave our own galaxy! Wanna bet me?

The year is 1977 …

NASA launches Voyager 1 and Voayger 2 the first space probes on a mission intended to travel to Interstellar space. I was 14 years old then and to hear that it would take 30 years for Voyager to leave our Soar System seems like a life time, and it was, but lifetimes catch up with you and before you know it 14 turns 41.

I remember the coolest thing about Voyager was the Sounds of Earth. A phonograph record put on each of the Voyager spacecraft. The recording was fitted on a 12-inch, copper disc containing, among other things “greetings from Earth people in 60 languages, samples of music from different cultures and eras, and natural sounds of surf, wind and thunder, and birds, whales and other animals. The record also contains electronic information that an advanced technological civilization could convert into diagrams, pictures and printed words, including a message from President Carter. (Courtesy NASA)”

A interstellar hallmark greeting card to anyone that might be out there listening! As you may have guessed one of the greetings recorded on the disk is in Thai which you can listen to here.

Of course I didn’t know anything of Thailand back then I was just intrigued by the ‘fully correct’ drawings of a naked man and woman on the disk to show what we humans look like. Racy stuff! Hey, it was the 70’s and I was 14 we didn’t have Cable TV or the even Internet invented yet!

I wonder if someday another race finds that disk and plays it. Would they send it back if it also had Disco on it? It was the 70’s back then kids. 😉

Would the aliens learn to speak Thai? Could they from one simple greeting? How advanced would they be? They would probably study to learn all Earth languages so they’d get lucky with at least one! Would they be intrigued in us enough to come here? Or maybe just intrigued in the pictures of us (hey maybe it gets reeeeeal lonely out there in space na) I also wonder what else would be different…

Would they need their own gender pronoun other than ‘Krap’ and ‘Kha’ to say hello? “Sa-wa-dee kruyynrxxx!”

Would they like Thai food? Would they prefer ‘farang’ phet (เผ็ด spicy hot), Thai phet (เผ็ด มากๆ really spicy hot!) or would we need a whole other category all together?

Maybe Aliens have already been here a long, long time ago before the first proto humans eyes would have seen them. I doubt we’ll know for sure in our life time whether or not we’re alone out here. After all this time Voyager is just now leaving our cosmic shores to begin crossing one very big intergalactic ocean. By the time another life form discovers our presence out there and they find their way here to say “Hello” “Sawasdee” or “Geuden tag” mankind could long since be turned to dust, the very material that makes up the stars and heavens itself. Our civilization long since disappeared, except for maybe Disco still bouncing around on radio waves out there. 😉

วทย์

Thai Poets:-) for U

FATHOMS DEEP THOUGH THE SEA
MAYBE’
MEASURABLE ARE THE SEAS
IN DEPTH.
SCALED CAN MOUNTAINS BE
IN HEIGHT.
IMMEARSURABLE IS THE DEPTHÁ
THE HEART OF MAN.

Isn’t this poet sounds great…very philosophal:-)
This is one of my favorite Thai Poet(which had been translated to English).The original poet in Thai comes from one of the ancient Thai proverb that had been composed during the Kingdom of Ayutthaya Dynasty.
This english version comes from the book called “Interpretative Translations of Thai Poets(1978)
So if anyone would like to appreciate Thai Poets.I’d look for more next times 🙂

I have to cut this short again. Jeep is busy with his Mid-Term exam
Choke Dee Krub
Jeep

Thai School Snackshop

Someone recently sent me an e-mail saying how much they liked seeing my Thai Food Blogs. They said it was whetting their appetite for coming to Thailand. However, they were interested to see what kind of food we served at school. They wanted to know if they would enjoy the food if they were a Thai student. The answer to that is probably “yes”. I certainly would have liked these meals instead of the food we were served at school when I was a kid. What I will do today, is first give you a sampling of snackshop food. Then, over the coming week, I will take pictures each day of the lunchtime meal.

The first one here on the left is spaghetti with a meat (ham) sauce. Well, that is what they said, but the spaghetti looked suspiciously like the Thai noodles called mee-grob. This is a crsipy noodle, which I like to eat with “rat-na”. On the right is another of my favourites, quail eggs. They sell four of these eggs for 5 baht. In fact, all of the food on this page is sold in the school snack shop for 5 baht a dish.

Of course I like to eat bread, but the one on the left is a bit too sweet for me. The thick bread is toasted with a generous spreading of butter. This is then dipped into a bowl of sugar! On the right is basically dry noodles but everyone calls it by its brandname of “mama”.

The final two pictures are a good example of how much Thai children like fried food. On the left you have a variety of different meats deep fried on a stick. For example, fish, pork, crab and chicken. On the right you can see our version of KFC at a fraction of the price!

Paradigm Shift

And then she said, “food land and hospital for the villagers”

I was in Surin, Thailand, helping out as a facilitator for an English and Environment camp organised by Dekrakpha, a NGO(Non-Governmental Organisation) whose cause is forest conservation. Rin, who uttered the above line that blew me away, works as an activist trying to solve the problems of overflooding caused by dams.

My group comprised a good mix of individuals. Some of my team mates were English and Communication students at Ubon University and signed up for this camp because they wanted to practice their English. Others might not be able to speak English fluently. However, since they were working in various NGOs, they had a profound understanding of the environmental issues in their country, which we hoped to tap upon.

We were in the midst of an activity which required our participants to imagine them as members of a village intent on settling down in a forested area. They would then need to brainstorm how they would want to develop this plot of land. We distributed sheets of paper to our groups so that they could crystallise their discussion points and reflect their ideas on their sheet.

engrossed in discussion

Now, being an urban kid, I had a slightly different view of forests. I learnt about the value of forests during my geography lessons but I kinda arrogantly dismissed it as paying lip service. I thought it a harsh foregone conclusion that forests must give way to industrialization if people wish to lead a better life. Who would be silly enough to reject the appeals of material comforts?

Evidently, this was not a view shared by my Thai friends as they didn’t even seem to consider the option of demolishing the entire forest to make way for their needs. There was an unspoken unanimous agreement that they would only demolish the land area they would need to build their homes and farm land. In fact, Pi Jeab, who incidentally owns a Master degree in Agriculture, explicitly suggested that the community keep the north-west portion of the forest intact because it would protect the village from the seasonal monsoon winds, which blow from that particular direction.

Perhaps, it isn’t too hard to withstand the lure of urbanization because as Rin astutely pointed out, the forest is a treasure chest of food and medicine. Nonetheless, I was impressed with how they didn’t disdainfully disregard the forest as a primitive, unsophisticated source. Instead of blindly pandering towards modern remedies, I sensed their grounded attitude as they understood the value of medicinal herbs and appreciated how its importance doesn’t just diminish with the emergence of new technologies. That was something that touched me.

crystallization of various talents!

Observing them excitedly mark out their prospective homes on the “map”, I also noticed their reverence for the forest. They drew a spirit house on the edge of the forest and explained to me how the guardian spirits inside would protect the forest and the village inhabitants. Again, this was an unanimous decision as no one questioned the need for this spirit house. It was simply something that had to be constructed.

This was yet another refreshing perspective because my Thai friends exhibited a desire of paying tribute and showing gratitude towards their provider. This was humility and maturity at its best. Most people would have unrestrainedly exploited whatever they desired and taken their blessings for granted. Some might even justify their greed by thinking that the forest owes them.

I didn’t know what I would expect from this activity. But I certainly didn’t expect my Thai friends to display such a fierce conviction to preserve the forest and its advantages to mankind. Without this activity, I would never have felt the co-dependent relationship they share with nature, their love for land and their commitment to managing their forest resources responsibly. These were valuable insights an urban dweller like me would never have fathomed on my own.

I felt privileged to partake, albeit briefly, in their world and hoped that someday, I might develop this deep, abiding love for land too.