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Why do you like Thailand?

April 17, 2010 1 comment

In over twenty years, by far the most often asked question has been “Why do you like Thailand?” The answers (for me and many of my friends) are varied and can take as little or as much time as a person wants to listen. Often while out with friends, we’ll catch on another’s eye and say something like, “It’s great to live in Thailand!” Of course if you’re new here, or frustrated by one of the many inconveniences that are part of life here, it’s understandable that you would disagree. This is OK – this is Thailand.

photo by Eternal Vagabond (flickr)

Outside, the traffic is picking up as Songkran festivities (Thai New Year celebrations) are winding down, at least in Bangkok. I went to Soi Cowboy two days in a row. Soi Cowboy, if you’re not familiar with Thailand, is a night spot – a small street packed with go-go bars. It’s charm is that it’s got open, outdoor places to sit and socialize. Normally, it sleeps in the daytime. My father always said “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” I have noticed that with the exception of bar owners, everyone who often spends their nights out has problems with work and cash flow. But none-the-less, Soi Cowboy was absolutely the place to be for Songkran this year.  While there, I also reflected on yet another reason to love Thailand.

The Songkran Festival is most well known for the water wars – before ever coming to Thailand, I heard all about these wars – people travelling around throwing water on one another.  So we arrived, about 8 or 9 of us, to this place to find it literally packed with hundreds of people, all throwing water on each other.  There was very little room to walk – and forget any hope of even a small square centimeter of yourself staying dry. Impossible!  The ice water was the best.  People coming up from behind, with small buckets of ice water, and drenching you.  Wow!

photo by Sama Sama Massa (flickr)

One of the really amazing things was watching this elderly lady, walking down through the masses, with a platter full of food from one of the restaurants.  It was as if she was immune to the water because she miraculously stayed dry, and her order was delivered without mishap.  Unbelievable.

As I was engaged in play, a Westerner nearby asked about the water gun I had – “Does that shoot well? ” and so I shot him.  He shot me back – and the comparison was like answering my b.b. gun with a cannon!  Wow!  He then explained that he’d spent the night before ‘modifying’ the gun, so it would work better.  I thought, how typically Western.  I also thought that it was pretty cool and something I might not have thought of doing with my time.

That got me to thinking a bit too deeply for that particular setting, and I began watching the Thais at play.  They had a few guns, but mostly it was about throwing water on each other and dancing.  Songkran is the one time out of the year, when it’s appropriate to have physical contact in public with members of the opposite sex.  So young guys like to go around with perfumed powder mixed with water and rub it on the faces of girls.  Some girls like this too it seems, but in fact, drunkenness and all, it’s quite happy fun.  Seldom does anyone get angry and if they want they can rub powder back or splash water back.

photo by LightOnDude (flickr)

Then I began to reflect about one of the major differences between the Westerners play and the Thai play.  For the Westerners, it was mainly all about war – strategies to ‘get’ the other person, and avoid getting ‘gotten’!  For the Thais, it was all about touching – putting a little powder on someone else, and splashing water around.  Dancing, and just having fun together.  Several times in two days, my friends commented that if this number of people were together on one place in our own country, it would break out in a fight in about 5 minutes or less!  I believe that’s right.

I remembered a question my language teacher Kru Nikom, once asked me about missionaries who come to Thailand.  “Why do you missionaries worry about their children seeing the human body naked, and teach their children that this is bad.  At the same time, think it’s OK to watch movies of wars and fighting?”  I thought then, and still do, that this is one of the best questions that I’ve ever heard.

So I gave my gun to a Thai, and traded them for a bucket of ice water! (of course the gun was already empty!)

I love living in Thailand!

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The distance between us

February 10, 2010 2 comments

Out of 10 children, I live the farthest from everyone. The rest of the family are in N. America. A few months ago I was able to visit them. The occasion was my father’s 80th birthday. This sort of ‘get together’ seems to happen about once every ten years, mostly due to the fact that we’re a very large family.

So one evening after dinner, we’re sitting around at Mom and Dad’s and the conversation goes to politics, and religion… What else, right?

As a family we’re pretty well aligned in our thinking, beliefs, etc. with the possible exception of myself (I’ll let the family make their own judgments about that, though I don’t think I’ve ‘strayed’ as far as they probably think I have) for I have moved on it would seem to me. So we are sitting around talking, and having fun conversation as we love to do and it wasn’t long until people began to argue. Nothing serious mind you, though if you didn’t know us you might think that we were getting angry or something. No, feelings rarely get hurt over these sorts of arguments, but I’ve been thinking about that night.

What is it that allows us (people in general and my family in particular) to argue so well, even with those we agree with. I mean in politics for example, I was probably the only black sheep there. (I thought that Bush was bad for America) But it wasn’t long until everyone is arguing about us politics. The conversation went to religion and that same thing happened only with a bit more passion because we’re a religious family. So, did we argue and solve anything? Never has happened yet. Did we change anyone’s opinions? Nope, everyone just got more entrenched and lonely. And how much distance between the actual ideas was there? Not so much as a centimeter if it could be measured that way. You’d have a difficult time finding a more aligned group.

So now I’m thinking about bigger more serious arguments that take place in our world and I’m thinking, why do we (people) always seem to look to our differences, no matter how small they might be, and act as if this was the only thing real?

So today, I recommit myself to looking at our samenesses. What an amazing world we might live in one day, if we could only just turn around, and look at the other, to find the multitude of ways in which we are aligned.

Of course, we have some wonderful examples of this in the world and in our history. Perhaps you might add their names here as a comment.

Pressure relief from culture shock

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

If you’ve moved to a new place recently, you’re probably experiencing some degree of culture shock.  I remember when I first moved to Thailand.  My temper grew short, I felt stupid most of the time (for my friends, no need to comment here) and it didn’t help being illiterate either, and I seemed to feel things I’d never felt before!

What was going on?  I wasn’t myself.

When I moved to Thailand in 1987, the idea that Thailand was the ‘Land of Smiles’ had I believe just begun to become a national slogan. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was expected to smile. I grew up in Southern California. Smiling at the wrong time, place or person could get you into serious trouble. More to the point, I just didn’t feel like smiling all the time. Smiling took effort. Yet everywhere I went, people wanted me to smile back at them.

I found relief though. It was during this time that I discovered Indian food. Not far from my house, was this great little Indian restaurant that some friends took me to, and the food was outstanding. Then reason I went back over and again however was not for the food. I had found a pressure release valve for culture shock!

From the moment I entered the restaurant, smiles were no longer expected and this felt wonderful. Walking in, the owner or manager might be standing there, staring with not even a hint of a smile, as if to ask, “Why are you coming into my establishment?” I would stare back, without a smile at all and say I want a table for 3. From ordering food, to paying the bill and leaving, the entire time could be spent without any effort or expectation that I needed to smile at someone.

Now, looking back, I’m much more comfortable with smiling. Rarely now, do people ever say that I look angry or unhappy but I assure you that this didn’t happen without pain – having to do anything that doesn’t come naturally is hard work.

Adjusting to any new culture – this is hard work. Culture shock is normally NOT some huge thing that happens, but is a lot of little things that we generally don’t notice.  What we notice, are the feelings that we experience as a result of being pushed out of our comfort zones.  In fact, for me, I see adjusting to a new culture as something very similar to excercise – it’s good for us.

Most of us have lived in our own language/culture and have arrived at an inner ‘place’ or comfort zone.  Our lives are predicatble there.  We know that we are easy-going, or high strung, or whatever we think characterizes us.  When we move to a new place, our inner limits change.

Imagine for example, that we have a cup of water (patience) that is 1/4 full.  To overflow (or lose your patience), we have to add in 3/4 more water, and this is you normally.  When you move to a new place, all the little things that are different and probably don’t really bother you all that much, get added in.  Together, they may add up to a great deal.  So are you losing your patience easily?  Not surprising.

Over time you assimilate the differences and they become part of you.  This generally takes longer than you think.  Don’t be surprised don’t be too hard on yourself.  There can be nothing as fantastic as learning about new people and places.  Enjoy it as much as you can, and accept that the inner-excercise of culture shock can be a healthy thing!

A pretty good blog about culture shock can be found at:
Leaving the Nest: An Expatriate’s Survival Guide: Culture Shock 101: The Problem

(One thing I realized as a student in the AUA Thai Program is that through sharing their lives, our teachers gave us more understanding of culture than was even imaginable.  I realized that in fact, understanding culture was more important than being able to use Thai, and preliminary to being able to use Thai as a Thai. There is so much added value in that, the for me, becoming fluent in Thai was merely a by-product.)

My experience learning Thai the ALG way

December 3, 2009 4 comments

I was 26 years old when I entered the Thai Program at AUA in September of 1987.  I’d just moved into a house on Ladphrao Rd – a large private home with a large yard ant it took about 45 minutes one way to get to school.  The greatest difficulty I had in learning Thai was navigating the traffic!

I had chosen AUA because they were then, and still are, the only school who offers something besides the traditional programs that I had always failed miserably in.  As as student, I hated being put on the spot – even when I knew the answer (which on occasion I did!) So when I found AUA, it didn’t take much to convince me to give it a year.  If it didn’t work – well I could always enroll in a traditional, ‘practice makes perfect’ sort of program.

The difference of AUA was that we didn’t really study.  My job as a student was to take in whatever they served up – and they served up a whole lot!  This wasn’t just a language school!  The job of the teachers was to keep us entertained and interested in whatever they could think up to do or talk about.  They were a very imaginative bunch of people.  By the end of my first class, I was thinking to myself that if all the classes were like this one, I was going to really enjoy language ‘study’ for the first time in my life.  I did too!

It wasn’t all easy, especially at first.  I was worried, mostly due to conditioning from schools and teachers, that I might not be doing very well.  Was I doing as well as other students?  Was I progressing as I should be? Without tests, how could you tell?  It didn’t take very long before I realized that I was going to need to adjust to a few more things than smog, traffic, spicy food and life as an illiterate.

There were 18 students in my group – we all began level 1 at the same time.  By the time I reached level 9 (the end at the time which also included a few classes based on ideas we had offered) there were 5 of us left.  Beginning with level 1, students who were from all over the world, walks of life, and intellects, knew more than the founder of the program, Dr. J. Marvin Brown.  Dr. Brown was a well known linguist and physicist and to date, one of the most humble and intelligent people I have ever met.  I figured that probably he knew more about language learning than my student peers – most of whom were fluent in about 1 language.

So I got to talking to Brown.  He was a great listener, and during my first three months of classes, I visited him a few times.  How am I doing?  How does he know?  And while I didn’t get the sort of answers I was looking for, I got the answers I needed. Things like…

“…tests can’t really tell us how you’re doing.”
“…comparing yourself to other students in the class doesn’t really make any sense.”
“…look inside and tell me what’s happening.”

When I asked him if I was doing what I was supposed to he asked me what I was doing.  I tried doing what he told me – that was to “sit back, and figure out as best I could what was going on.” and “Guess.” and “Don’t worry about what you’re hearing”.

This mindset took me three months to settle into – and once that happened, I’ve never wanted to settle out of this mode!  This mode of learning has been and continues to give me life’s greatest moments and experiences.

It also seems to be a mode of existence that many adults struggle with.  We want to latch onto things, nail them down clearly, and then say we know a certain thing. (more on this in a blog at a later time.)  With this program I couldn’t do it.  I came away each day, with a whole lot of experiences, but unable to say I’d learned even a single word!  Wasn’t I supposed to be learning words?  No!  Dr. Brown, or Marv as he preferred to be called by friends, explained it to me something like this… Words, grammar, and all other ‘parts’ of language come from our experiences. In order to make a word, your brain needs the sounds of that language.  Where does it get the sounds?  From your experiences.  In order to make a sentence, your brain needs the grammar of that language.  Where does it get the grammar?  From experiences.  So I settled in and just collected the experiences.

It has been 22 years since that time.  I have never once regretted a moment I spent at AUA.  The fact is, language is a by-product of what they gave me.  That one year of entertainment was without question, the greatest educational year of my life!

Relationships, and other transactions

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Over the weekend I attended a friend’s wedding.  Part of the ceremony included a hugely formal display of the dowry: a spreading out of the money and gold, gifts of fruit and other foods, and expensive embroidered cloth which was offered to the bride’s family.  This is very important for the family it shows proper respect to the family.  The first time I ever saw this, I was shocked more than a little.  It seemed to somehow cheapen what the wedding should have been all about – to bring it down to nothing much more than a normal business type transaction.  “Here is the money we agreed to.  Now, I’ll take your daughter.”  Business transaction complete.

I’d always thought marriage was about love.  This is what I learned in my culture anyway.  We Westerners like to think about relationships, (especially those between a man and woman) in terms of  “love” (nevermind that no two of us ever have the same definition), “friendship”, and “family”.  We like words like “trust” and “loyalty”. 

Not here – relationships are all a negotiation, and the longer the relationship is, the longer the negotiation takes, and the more there is at stake.

Living in Asia has made a whole new world of values come to life for me.  Relationships are transactions  and these must be negotiated.  It is always healthy to keep clearly in mind, what the negotiation is about.  What are the stakes?  What is being offered?  What is expected in return?  Nothing is offered for free and in a negotiation, thinking that your values are better than those around you will put you at a disadvantage.

Here are a few things that may be good to consider:

    1.    Family is always involved.  Unless you’re dealing with an orphan, the family is involved and whether you realize it or not, they are a part of the transaction.

    2.    Love is not nearly as important as other aspects you may overlook – such as the ability to guarantee future comfort levels.

    3.    Immediate gain is better than a guarantee for something in the future.  Perhaps this is our common ground?

Long term relationships require continuous negotiations.  🙂

Let

February 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Such a small, huge word, ‘let’! I am still learning its meaning. The areas of life that this concept applies to seem endless.

Our whole society seems to work on the wrong side of things. We want to prohibit things people want to do and make people do things that they don’t want to!

Think about education. People are born to learn – wanting to know is like wanting to eat! The question I have is this – What are you learning. Normally what we’re learning and what’s being taught us are two different things. Understanding this can place us on the right side of things.

Democracy

November 7, 2008 Leave a comment

Democracy fails, not because it doesn’t work at all, but because it instills individualism without responsibility. Only when individuals realize that the personal needs of others are also their own responsibility will we see a system of government emerge that makes more sense. Rather than every man for himself, it will be every life for the life of all.