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!

What’s Good with Thaksin, the Redshirts, and the Yellowshirts?

April 13, 2010 2 comments

Key: [TIG = This is Good]

Nearly every news report I read, blog, tweet, or comment from a friend, decries what’s happening with the RedShirt demonstrations and conflicts surrounding it. I for one seem to see things a bit differently.  I think much of all this is good stuff!

People write about the past, quoting a bit of history, a date, or a person’s name.  No doubt this establishes credibility for them as a writer or reporter.  But what of the big picture.

For example, Thaksin was and perhaps still is among the wealthiest people in the world. Was he corrupt? Have you ever heard of a Thai politician who wasn’t? I don’t mean to malign anyone here, but it seems to me that corruption, power, and control have been the domain of Thai government for all of modern recorded history.  I can’t imagine making a shift from the past that is to an non-corrupt form of government overnight.   Anyway, my understanding of how Thais want things to work, is that corruption is nowhere near over!  Did Thaksin take corruption to new levels? Sure – he had the means to do so.  Want him back? No way. I think the guy’s dangerous. But to his credit (motives aside) he is the first rich, politician that I know of who really engaged the poor majority. [TIG]

Honestly, the attitude of the past by those in political power has always been to ignore the poor, until election time, or until the poor needed something so badly they had to close down roads to get attention.  By the way, this is something that is historically common all over the provinces – so when these guys came to Bangkok, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine what the outcome might be – the RedShirts may have never been much engaged in the politics before now, but they are certainly experienced in demonstrations that involve road closures.  So Thaksin, among the list of other accomplishments, can be credited with single-handedly (a hand quite full of money) engaging the masses of poorer people in the democratic process.  I imagine that using 300 Baht gifts to these guys before election won’t have the same effect as it always has in the past! [TIG] Ah, you say, he paid all of these people and that’s the reason they’re involved.  Realizing that this has always been common practice, It’d imagine that the stakes have been raised so high by now that the practice will have to dissappear! [TIG]

Many people have decried the demonstrations of the RedShirts.  Why? Frankly, it’s been very disruptive. Having never been really engaged in democratic proceedings before, they now have something they want to say. [TIG] The fact that they could perhaps go about it in a better way to my way of thinking is of much lesser importance that the fact that they’re finally involved.  Come on everyone.  This is the majority of the population by a long shot – and they have never gotten involved before now. You must ask yourself why haven’t they?  So now the RedShirts have started a course in politics and democracy, and are paying tuition. [TIG]

So does anyone want these guys running the country? No! But they need to be involved, and it may be important to recognize that it is largely those who are opposed to the RedShirts, who have been historically all too happy to leave the “poor uneducated farmers on the farm where they belong!”

So now the poor are speaking up!  I say [TIG]!

We who are from places where democratic processes are more established and governments are more stable, fail to remember our own histories.  The riots, the uprisings, the debates that ended in bloodshed – all seem to be a part of our own histories.  In fact, for the sort of changes that have happened and need to continue, few people have died. [TIG] Few of us have experienced such happy demonstrations as have been the majority of the RedShirt activity.  The spirit has largely been that of a football game! Where else but in Thailand do people have such a fun time demonstrating? [TIG]. Sure there are a few how are holding grudges, and they may be pulling more strings that is obvious to the casual onlooker – but again, it’s always been like this and won’t change overnight. I imagine that if this was the USA, there would have been less than 1/2 the demonstrators and over twice the deaths. So… [TIG]

As in most of life, it’s not really about who’s right or who’s wrong.  So when people want to talk about this person did this, or that person did that, Or use words like corruption, vote-buying, or vested interests, I want to say to everyone, take a step back and look at the big picture! While I don’t want to see the country being run by puppets of Thaksin, (and this is something to disallow) for the first time that I’m aware of, there is finally a real cross-section of people who are involved in the political process. [TIG] Will elections be dramatically different from the past? Probably not. But the more varied and involved the people are, the more representative the government must become. And the more elections will be about ideas rather than about power.

And This Is Good.



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.

How quickly we forget

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

The redshirt, yellowshirt situation in Thailand that has centered around the King, the ex-prime minister Thaksin, and Democracy, has drawn attention from people all around the world. Comments that have been made are sometimes humorous, generally opinionated and often lack perspective. One such comment was made today about how Democracy is on it’s deathbed here in Thailand. What rubbish!

I wonder if the protests that happened around the leadership of Martin Luther King were viewed by people as a weakening of democracy in the US. Hmmm.

Today, we have people (perhaps as many as 50,000) demonstrating peacefully (with the spirit of fans at a football game) throughout the city. These are people who have largely never been a part of any democratic process before in their life time. “Vote? Why? Sorry, not interested.” has been their level of political involvement.

Today, these people are in the real-life classroom and not only are they involved, they’re helping to involve others as well.

What is it about the us that causes us to expect that people can get to the place of understanding we are on any particular point overnight? There is not a better sign of the vibrance and health of democracy in Thailand than the fact that people are engaged and able to demonstrate in this way, in many ways, with the support of the government.

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.

Thinking out loud – about thinking…

February 16, 2010 2 comments

I’ll be 49 years old this year.  If I live until June anyway.  50 used to sound so old!  🙂  There aren’t many things that I’d do differently in my life if I had the misfortune of having to do it all over again.  But there is one thing I wish I knew better, and wish I’d have known a long time ago.  It has to do with thinking.

It’s like I’ve got this voice inside of me, and the conversation between me and that voice goes on nearly all the time.  I never used to be distracted by it very much.  I am distracted by it now – I want to say to this voice, “Shut UP!”  Of course that doesn’t help but there are ways.  This voice, is never focused on what I need to focus on; and always talking about the past, or worrying about the future.

Today, right now, I’m taking a moment to quiet him.  Slowing down all the chatter until there is only quiet – then I can think clearly.  I can choose what I need to think about.  I can make decisions easily and find then the ability to move forward.

“Why is it so difficult to quiet that inner voice?  Why didn’t I learn to just shut-up before now?”

Ha!  see there?  He’s talking again!  Just as I decided to become quiet!

I suppose I’ve never been regarded as an intellectual.  (I can hear friends and family snickering…)  But even I find that the best way forward is to slow down my mind.  Slower.  slower.  s l o w e r.

Quiet.  Present right here, right now.

All around me is noise – but inside is calm and still.

This is the place to be.

Categories: Uncategorized

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.