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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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Asking the right questions

March 27, 2010 Leave a comment

A couple of years ago I got together with this small group of friends. Each of us has our own business or more and we meet regularly to share ideas, gripe and complain, and just well, get together. Rather than getting together for reasons like other guys, such as playing golf, or cards, or just drinking, we get together to talk share ideas that we’ve found useful in our work.

So the particular conversation came up and I think we were all sufficiently drunk to not become upset by much. (Some of the best conversations have happened at these sorts of times.)  As one friend was talking, he shared how he felt his business needed to grow, but all he could see were obstacles.  “How can I grow my company in the way I feel it needs to grow?  I don’t have this, and I don’t have that..”  was pretty much how that side of the conversation went.  After a while, my other friend said, “You’re asking all the wrong questions!”  Which I found to be both true and rather blunt – something I would have said. Anyway, he went on – the questions to be asking are What? and Who?

“What is it that I want to do?”

“What resources do I already have at my disposal?”

“What do I need that I don’t have?”

“Who can do this?”

“When do I want this to be done?”

After answering these questions, I’ve found that the big “HOW” questions are then defined after the fact.  Try it, you may be surprised and how many avenues open up just by changing the questions a bit.

Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts – How will this end?

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I don’t know about you, but if you’re in Thailand, you’re probably getting asked this question as much as I am.  Most of the people I know don’t really define themselves as either Red or Yellow.  Most of the people I know, wish that we could just have nice, quiet coups without all the publicity, which by every account, has hurt Thailand considerably.  It’s not that people don’t care that business interests are suffering – it’s more like there simply seems to be no way forward that’s positive.

As in other places in the world, the whole situation lacks real leadership and direction.  (Perhaps in this sense, the government is truly representative of the people.)  Or perhaps, and I think more likely, this situation needs a different sort of solution, one that cannot really be provided by politics.

Everyone seems to want democracy – but everyone it would seem, realizes what with the social, educational, and class differences among the constituents, a representative government is unlikely.  Not to over-simplify things, but it’s not dissimilar to an imagined representative process where the majority of the voters were 16 year olds, while the minority were 70 year olds.  The minority has held the reigns of power (i.e. money) and all of a sudden, the 16 year olds have found their voice.  Among his many other successes and failures, Thaksin gave the kids a voice.

The problem as I see it is this: While we may hope that the Red Shirts will slowly lose their ability to gather together, and Thaksin may lose his ability to support them, this is a dangerous game to play.  Ideas don’t die so easily.  Sooner or later, new leaders emerge.

It’s not hard to see that the present powers that be, don’t really represent the poor and less well-educated of the country. (notice I’m not saying repressed.) [In their own view, Thaksin was the first major politician to extend a ‘helping hand’ to the poor majority.  We could all debate whether his motives were to help the poor or not, and whether what he did actually helped anything – many families have become destitute because of the loans that couldn’t be repaid.]  But as a scenario, is there any leader among the Red Shirts including Thaksin, who could possibly bring together a government which is representative of the business and economic interests of the nation?  (notice I’m not saying majority.)  [And here lies the democracy problem.  Who possibly favors allowing the 16 year olds to control finance, foreign policy, national security, etc.?]

We currently have two ways of seeing things, that are held apart from each other by virture of education, knowledge, and experience.  If there was some way to educate, and bring the majority of Thai people up to the levels of the Yellow Shirts, democracy might work better. By levels, I don’t mean higher in any moral sense, simply more advanced due to broader experience, opportunity, education, money, etc.  This is the vital difference between the young and the old.  Thailand doesn’t do retirement very well.  We value our aged.  But this can also be extremely stifling.  And on occasion, splits occur.

What is needed here is a bridge, or better yet, many bridges that will span the gaps between the Red and Yellow factions.  Today, Thonburi is nearly non-existent as a unique and different place from Bangkok – it has been so integrated mainly due to the bridges across the Chao Phraya River.   But where the bridges might come from in order to span the gaps between the Red and Yellow is anyone’s guess, but they must ideally be built from the power base to the disenfranchised – and here too, leadership appears to be lacking.

Thinking out loud, I wonder if business people, all of who suffer from the current state of dysfunction, could develop a plan to make the needed bridges.  While a return on investment in the poorer communities may not make great business sense, it makes great social sense.  It might also do wonders to alleviate the political divide that is costing business so much today.

I imagine people commenting at this point – something down the lines of how long such a strategy would take and how expensive it would be.  I agree, it could only happen little by little over a period of time, before the lasting results would be understood completely, but I also know that this problem of Red and Yellow isn’t going to end with the demonstrations this weekend – and frankly, from the business perspective, it’s costing too much already.

Last year I visited Taiwan.  I spoke with friends about the tensions between the mainland and their country.  Those tensions are lessening, little by little, because of investment between the countries.  If the Thai government created incentives for businessmen to invest in the poorer communities, much could happen quickly.  It wouldn’t take too long before the knowledge and experience would be there in a way that everyone could finally wear new shirts with new colors.  Then, and not before, will Thailand find the means to a representative government.

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!

Surfing the Waves of Life

February 18, 2009 Leave a comment

When friends who I knew as a young person ask what’s happened over the past 10 or twenty years, it’s very difficult to answer. None of it id difficult to talk about but there has been so much that has transpired. We still don’t have the time. Starting with what it is that I’m doing now seems somehow not quite enough, though it’s not a bad place to begin.


Today, I realize that I have more ideas of fun things to do, than I do time to do them all. I enjoy, and guess I always have enjoyed playing with things. It’s taken me a while I think, to get to a point where I don’t have to be too serious about everything but that like many things has been a growing process. I enjoy diving, (scuba, skin diving, etc.) I realize that I have the potential to become wealthy but for some perverse reason, money has never been of interest to me. I have for the past couple of years, worked at eliminating things – the stuff of modern living, from my life. I don’t think I’ve been successful yet but it’s fun to get rid of the stuff anyway.


For as long as I can remember, it is friendship that has been important to me. I’ve not always been the best friend to others. I have always valued friends – sometimes more that I should have perhaps. I have a great capacity for being a friend. As a result, I have experienced a gravitation toward people who value friendship in the same way I do. This is very satisfying. Our relationships are built on that valuation of what a friend is, more than any other thing. For a time, I was intolerant of people who built friendships based on other things, but now I find that I’m more open to them as well, realizing that there is often benefit in any case.


Twenty years ago, I was a missionary, fresh to Thailand from the US. I have never thought I had all the answers, but I’m sure that I acted like I did! Thinking back now on those days can be quite embarrassing. I’m not ashamed of those days – just amazed at how closed I was to some things.


The following ten years aren’t difficult to imagine – I followed the path that was laid out for me by the traditions of the fundamental Baptist churches that supported me. I should say that I mostly followed the path. In our group of about 10 to 12 families, I think I was always the renegade. I was the one who started the controversial things if there were any controversial things to be started. I couldn’t figure out why we should keep doing all the things that we’d done for years that really didn’t add up to much. And in those circles it doesn’t take much thinking outside of ‘the box’ to get you out on your own.


Those who rely on the traditions to maintain their own sense of security tend to feel nervous around me – This along with a few other things led to the breakdown of my marriage. Cathe and I lasted for nearly 20 years, but things really started coming apart around 10 years ago. There’s not much to be learned probably from that whole tedious experience but part of it is worth sharing. I felt trapped. From the start of our relationship, I believed that by living according to the creeds of the church, I would establish trust, and love, and security in relationships. What I found was that as time went on, all I established was a cage made of the expectations of others and that cage kept getting smaller and smaller. I didn’t have much in terms of patience nor understanding, though I gave it several years.


That cage wasn’t made up of expectations about my actions only. It was also made up of beliefs as well so that as I began to explore a new idea here and there, it was only met with fear and seen as threatening. You can probably imagine the cycle that this put us in – I would have an idea, or do something that wasn’t within the satisfactory code of conduct and on one side the response was fear and on my side it was a need to push things farther in that direction. I wasn’t smart enough to know how to deal with it. In the end, I wound up with Cathe and the boys in the US, and I had a few decisions to make – I had already decided to stay in Thailand but was still supported as a missionary. With a broken family, I decided to leave the missionary work and make my way working.


Since then I’ve been doing many things but all have largely centered on education in some way or another.


When we first arrived here in Thailand, I had come across a language program that really got my interest. It was based in the idea that adults can learn a language in the same basic way that young children do. Of course this interested me because I knew that I was a lousy language student. After one year in the program, I reflected back and realized that I’d just enjoyed the most fascinating learning experience of my life. They had taken my worst subject and turned it into the best learning year I’d every had. What if that could be done for everyone? What if it could be done for every subject?


That has become a theme for my life. That was also the first big wave for me. That wave took me out of my boxed in way of thinking about language and showed me something entirely new and different. How many other boxes were there? How many other waves to ride?


The church, and my understanding of God, cultural expectations, spirituality,… there are many. I’ve spent the last 10 years riding waves. It’s a better way to live.


Funny thing, but while I was young in California I never learned to surf. It wasn’t until coming here, that I’ve taken up a new sort of surfing, and it must be ultimately more exhilarating.


I believe that we’re coming to a time of great change and opportunity. The waves of change are all around us and they’re growing. I expect to ride them with great pleasure. I think that many people now are afraid because we’re experiencing things that haven’t happened before. Somehow, I feel born for a time like this. The old paradigms aren’t helping anymore. Yet that is all many people have to cling to.

What of belief and spirituality? For a time, I denied these things. I realized that our thoughts are the result of our experiences. That’s it. All of the things that mankind believes about God or life after death are predictable results of his or her life experiences. When other explanations were better intellectually it became difficult to have faith – at least not as before. But after a few years of denial, there has risen some other things that I cannot deny. We are alive. Everything around us is energy in some form or another. In that, we are all connected in a way the is both amazing and challenging. There are some things that we know, that we recognize, that are deeper than the mere intellect. One of those things is a desire towards love and unity in our lives. Today, we are being called to a higher calling to love that is not only spiritual but physical – and as large as the universe.

Today I am more open to others and at peace with myself that I have ever been. I find that others around me are strengthened by this, but also less dependent on me. In all, this is a healthy thing.


I hope that you will ride the waves with me – this life is here to be enjoyed!

This blog is represents the views and opinions of David – only and is not necessarily representative of any organization or affiliate.

Categories: life, society