Thailand's National Flower

Thailand's National Flower

Friday, January 11, 2013

Christmas, Pt. Deux

It's always dicey to come 6,000 miles without calling ahead.

First the back story: Thailand is 98% Buddhist. Though the Thais love the sparkle of Christmas, it's because it's sparkly and not because it's Christmas. They don't celebrate the season as the Church does in the West. For this reason, there was much less time to get home and back again than would be allotted stateside. Schools in Thailand don't end on December 24th and begin anew on January 2nd. At least many of them don't. Many go right through the Christmas season.

However, in grand Thai fashion, Christmas festivities begin long before the actual holiday, and continue long after it's over. Again, not because it's Christmas, but because sparkly things can be added to otherwise normal surfaces, transforming classrooms with origami paper stars, paper chain swag, bits of plastic cut into shapes, festooned with garland and hung from every doorway, window and blackboard. This is also true of Thai businesses that have no affiliation with the holiday as a philosophical reality. Sparkly Christmas trees and the sparkly Buddhist shrines co-exist, side-by-side.

As I said, in the days before I left for home, my students were engaged in decorating every square inch of their classrooms, the hallways, and all surfaces available on every tree, pillar and post in the school yard. Not much schoolwork was attempted or gained during this time. I stopped trying to teach. My students were far too busy hunched over their respective piles of glitter, paper, scissors and glue. Decorating here takes precedence over all other activities. This is a culture with a strong arts and crafts tradition. They weave, braid and glue the way the rest of us breathe in and out.

Thus, with no remorse whatsoever, and even less remorse from my partying students, I left for Mae Fah Luang Airport at 7:30am on December 21st. In the Thai tradition of going along for the ride, eight (8) Thai teachers packed into the school van to accompany me to the airport. When we arrived, they unloaded my suitcases, bulging with gifts for my family, and promptly toppled them to the sidewalk.


I picked up my suitcases, heaved them back onto the cart and wheeled them toward security. Inside, we gathered for the prerequisite group picture(s). The Thais love ceremonial picture taking. Snap, snap, snap, smile, shift, smile, shift, smile, hugs, tears, waving, waving, waving, and finally the long good-bye.

I hadn't slept much the night before. When all else fails, I can count on my insomnia. I went to look for coffee. Over a steaming Americano, while waiting for my flight to Bangkok, I reflected on my time in Thailand.

In all truthfulness, I have been leaving this place since the day I arrived. In July, for instance, I left for Laos; in October, I left for London; now, in December, I was returning to the States, albeit for the short run.  In March, I'll leave again for good.

Honestly? I'm used to leaving. I don't feel it much anymore. Which doesn't mean I won't miss my Thai friends. But I've left so many times over the years that I can only afford so much grief. My heart refuses to break any more. It couldn't take the repeated hit without becoming calloused. I see this as a strength. Saying goodbye is inevitable. Not falling apart is my response to inevitability.

That said, my family has become increasingly precious to me. There's no distance I won't go, no trouble I won't shoulder, no inconvenience I won't endure in order to be close to them, whenever and wherever I can.

In fact one reason (among many) that I came to Thailand was because my youngest was going to Afghanistan. I was much closer to her in Thailand than remaining in my home in Washington State. I know, I know. That's not rational. I'd have never been able to get into Afghanistan to look for her if something had gone awry, but I would have tried. Proximity, in my mind, is half the battle.

So is safety. I could let go of my eldest child, trusting her to the care of my capable son-in-law. The same goes for my middle child, who's happily in love with a great guy, and who's safely tucked in to his family. I could relax my hold.

But the youngest? She was at risk. No question. If I had to get to her, the distance was a fraction of what it would have been if I'd remained pacing stateside.

So while I find the Thai people endearing, they don't belong to me in that same way that my family does, and I don't plan to keep them. We are therefore destined for goodbye. By definition, that limits how close we will become.

The otherwise happy news: When planning a Christmas trip of 6,000 miles, one should always expect the unexpected. The week before I left for home, Leigh mentioned, oh so casually on facebook, that she was going to Leavenworth with her fiance's family for the holiday. Ruh-roh. The proverbial mouse had just plopped into our bowl of Christmas pudding. I wasn't sure whether to spill the beans, throw the baby out with the bath water, or other, better, select cliches. I held my breath. The success of the trip was predicated on all three daughters being in the same place, at the same time. If even one daughter was missing, there would be a rather nasty hole in my otherwise brilliant plan.

I questioned her nonchalantly, trying not to give myself away. She was leaving the same day that I would arrive?!!  Holy Shmoly, Batman! What to do, what to do? I paced. This is what insomniacs do. We're good at it.

"What time are you going?" I messaged.
"Noon," she typed back.
"When will you be back?"
"Late, on the 25th. We check out at 11:00am."

In a flash of genius, I said I wanted to skype with all three daughters at the same time. I put her to the task of setting up a coffee date with her sisters at some coffee shop so we could chat (Diabolical and brilliant, no?).

We would make it work. I didn't want to take away from her holiday plans. Leavenworth is a gorgeous place, and Destry's family are dear people.

When I landed in Spokane on the morning of the 22nd, Jiorgia was at the airport to meet her husband. Very quickly, she became an accomplice in a little something I had begun to call Christmas Ambush, 2012.  It was she who set up the next part: every Christmas the girls receive Florida oranges from their father. This year the crates went to Leigh's house, awaiting the arrival of her sisters.

Jiorgia dialed her sister, awakening her.

"I'm at the airport picking up Paul. We're coming by to get my box of oranges."
"Uhm, okay --  Right now? It's only 8:30."
"We won't stay long."

Leigh muttered under her breath and curled back under the blankets.

"What does she think? We're going to eat her share of the citrus?"

She was asleep again in under five minutes.

Back at the airport: We waited for my sizable suitcase, jam packed with Christmas goodies. Eloise helped pull it to the truck. She glanced at me shyly and grinned. She's four. She's original. She's mine.

At Leigh's house: we knocked on the door. No answer. We knocked again. No answer.

"Hide over there," Jiorgia ordered, pointing to the corner next to the backdoor. I slipped behind her, and flattened myself against the wall.

She knocked again.

Finally Leigh opened the door a crack. She was in her pjs. She was not smiling.

"I had to get pants on."

I leaped from my hiding place, and though she was barefoot, she threw herself off the back porch and into my arms. We stood hugging in the cold for a long, long time. I began to worry about her feet.

Inside the house, she wiped the tears from her face and made tea. The cats, Lola and Clementine hissed at us and pranced off in a huff. Destry ambled into the kitchen and gave me a hug.

We didn't stay long. Those two had a trip to a winter wonderland ahead.

Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!

I love the grand gesture.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I flew home at Christmas to surprise my daughters and me mum for her 80th birthday. The only one who knew I was coming was Paul, my favorite first son-in-law. We synchronized our watches and vowed to meet up in Seattle. He was arriving from the Arctic by way of Kotzebue and Anchorage. I came by way of Bangkok and Taipei. I arrived ahead of time and checked into an airport hotel. I wanted a hot bath, a stout ale and to go to bed. I got two out of the three. Sleep was not to be had.

I had not seen my girls, Jiorgia and Elizabeth, in over a year, or my middle daughter, Leigh, and my mom, in nearly 8 months. In that time, the first had returned to the arctic, and the youngest had served a stint in Afghanistan. Nor had I clamped eyes on the littlests in our family for more than a year. Eloise Grace had become four and Silas Paul had become two.

In my hotel room, I paced. When I lay down and closed by my eyes, the drone of the plane and the oceanic turbulence resumed. I paced, grateful for the solitude. I took another shower, washed my hair, and read as much of Dostoyevsky as I could take, in between bouts of Solitaire, Bubble Safari, and more pacing.

At 5:00 am the next morning I stood in a snaking holiday line, waiting to check my bag. I made my way through security and removed my boots for the first time in my long trek across the planet. I submitted to the x-ray scanner, my hands up and my thumbs pointed toward my skull. The check point people were friendly, making helpful suggestions for getting through more quickly. They assumed I wouldn't get the drill. They were right, I didn't, though I appreciated the bit of humanity that made the awkwardness less so.

I came through Mumbai recently, on a autumn trip to London, and as I passed through security and immigration I was treated with dismissive contempt, though no one made me take off my shoes. They threw my passport back at me, or they cast it down on the counter and simply walked away, scattering the contents as I scrambled to gather my stuff and figure out where to go next. One guy, seated in a booth behind bullet proof glass, went to the trouble to rip out my reentry permit. He didn't remove it completely, for which I am grateful. It cost me 3,800 baht and it would've cost me much more to pay to re-enter Thailand without it. I could say nothing though my eyes flashed at the obvious discourtesy. He came close to breaking the law. Who would've stopped him?

The disgust for America and Americans is often taken out on innocent travelers. There are welcoming exceptions, of course. I have been greeted brightly by security people, who have asked about my teaching profession and have waived me through without incident. I have been seen by some as a help to the children of their country and not a predator. However those times of shared humanity are rare. As a 57-year-old American woman, I am, apparently, ample evidence of what's wrong with the superpower, and not just some weary traveler trying to get home to my family.

Paul motored through the weather uncertainties of the arctic and made his sudden appearance at our boarding gate in Seattle. I was getting a little worried. "Well," I thought, "I'll have to finagle another ride home from the airport." Paul travels for his work, so he's a frequent flyer and was seated at the front of the plane. We lesser passengers were nearly made to stand at the position of attention when he stepped aboard. Just shy of the rank of the Captain of the plane, the MVPs take their exalted places at the front. As a less frequent flyer and a mere mortal, I was pointed toward row 10, window seat. The flight attendants were perfunctory though pleasant. The flight is not long. Frankly, I cared less where they put me so long as I was aboard. I strained at the windows. Landing was best.

When we deplaned, Paul faded back into the crowd. I emerged alone through the security gate and there stood Jiorgia with her two littlests, awaiting her husband. She wasn't expecting her mother. She glanced at me and then glanced again. A shocked recognition came across her beautiful face. She promptly burst into tears. The hug was well worth the hours in flight, the sweaty airport security checkpoints, the pacing and the fatigue that comes with crossing datelines. As we hugged and shed our tears, I heard behind me the happy noises of holiday recognition. We all know the sweetness of homecoming, made even sweeter by the miles and days of separation.

As I knelt to hug the shy ones still clinging to their mother's legs, Paul walked up. "Look Paul, my mom is here!" We grinned. Mission accomplished!

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Buddhist Lent: Class Field Trip

August 2, 2555: Asalha Puja; Beginning of Vassa (Theravada)

Buddhist Lenten: Vassa is a three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada monks and nuns. It begins on the day after the full moon day of the eighth lunar month of the common Buddhist calendar, which usually falls in July, but this year it falls on August 2nd. The retreat ends on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the eleventh lunar month, usually in October. Sometimes this holiday is called "Dharma Day." Asalha Puja commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta  (or sermon of Buddha), "setting the wheel of dhamma (dharma) in motion." In this sermon, the Buddha explained his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. These form the foundation of Buddhism. The truths are: 

1. The Truth of Suffering is the First Noble Truth, and is often translated as "Life is suffering"  (samudaya).  But the Pali word, dukkha, also refers to that which is temporary, conditional, or a compound of many things. Even something precious and enjoyable is considered dukkha, because it is temporary.

This truth is related to the nature of life and the nature of the self. In Buddhism, human life is temporary, conditional and compounded by many issues. Buddhism teaches that life is impermanent, and that we, also, are impermanent. Buddhism also teaches that before one can understand life and death one must understand the self as impermanent. Many agree that the nature of human existence is tragedy, yet Christianity differs from Buddhist philosophy in its view of the human soul as impermanent. Christians believe that the human soul, for better or worse, is eternal. 

2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering is the Second Noble Truth, which teaches that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst (tanha). Buddhist tradition teaches that humanity continually searches for something outside the self to make it happy. Yet no matter how successful one is, he/she does not remain satisfied for long.  Buddhism teaches that this thirst grows from an ignorance of the self. Humans sometimes go through life grabbing one thing after another to get a sense of security about ourselves. They attach not only to physical things, but also to ideas and opinions about the self, others, and the world. Often these individuals, according to Buddhist philosophy, grow frustrated when the world doesn't behave, think, or conform to prescribed expectations. This is probably true of all of us, from time to time.

3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)  Buddhist teachings on the Four Noble Truths are sometimes compared to a physician diagnosing an illness and prescribing a treatment. The first explains the illness, and the second lists the causes of the illness. The third truth holds out hope for a cure. Buddhism teaches that through diligent practice, mankind can put an end to craving. Ending the chase for satisfaction is called  enlightenment (bodhi = awakened). The enlightened being then exists in a state called Nirvana. At my age, most of what once bedazzled me no longer does. Most of us grow up sometime. I'm grateful that I've finally outlived most (but not all) of my various obsessions. My past is littered with the mess.

4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)
Here, Buddha as physician prescribes the treatment for the illness of humanity.  Like Christianity, in Buddhism there is no particular benefit to merely believing a doctrine. Instead, the emphasis is on living the doctrine and walking the path. In Buddhist countries, as in Christian ones, this teaching is not routinely followed. Many call themselves followers of Buddha, as many say that they are followers of Christ, and yet their actions reveal that this is not the case. Corruption, sexual indiscretions, alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse, war and unhappiness are as rife in Buddhist countries as in their western counterparts. Perhaps humans are good at ascribing to ideas better than themselves, but not many stay the course.

Yet, just as in Christianity, there are the faithful in Buddhism. Thus, during Vassa, these Buddhist monks and nuns remain inside monasteries and temple grounds, devoting their time to intensive meditation and study. Laypeople support the monastic sangha by bringing food, candles and other offerings to temples. My students and I recently made this pilgrimage. See the pictures above and on my facebook site.

As in Christianity, many Buddhists also observe Vassa (Lent) by giving up something, such as smoking or eating meat. This tradition of meditation and study began during the life of Buddha. The first Buddhist monks did not remain in one place, but walked from village to village, to teach. They begged for their food and often slept out-of-doors, sheltered only by trees. Yet during India’s summer rainy season living as homeless ascetics became much more difficult. So groups of monks found a place to stay together until the rain stopped, forming a temporary religious community. The wealthy sometimes sheltered these groups of monks on their estates. Eventually they built permanent houses for monks, an early form of the monastery.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Changing My Mind: An American Perogative

My students need a huge dose of freedom. Wai Kru is a practice here of honoring the teacher, and although it is lovely for the recipient, it may not be so lovely for the one scraping and bowing. I know this is a reversal of my former position, but that's what I like about being American: I get to change my mind.

I've been teaching in Thailand just under three months. In that time I've begun to realize that critical thinking skills are missing from many of my students. They can copy what I put up on the blackboard, but their school lives are separate from their private lives by miles and miles. That seems a complete waste of pop culture and their formal education. It isn't that I want to turn them into cynical Americans, but they would definitely benefit from learning to ask the hard questions. They could start with the question, "why?". They could follow with "how?".  They need to know what things are, what they're called, and to question whether something ought to remain the way it is.

For instance, recently the grounds crew sprayed for mosquitoes just outside our classroom. In Thailand, there are few windows with glass panes. It never gets cold enough to require them.  Rainy season is nearly upon us. On this particular day, chemical clouds came wafting through the open windows of my classroom. First the students began to cough and to cover their faces with their shirts. Then some of the students quickly raced to pull the shutters closed and draw the curtains. There is an open wire grid at the top of the window openings that runs the full extent of the wall, which allowed the chemical fumes to continue pouring into the classroom. I was grateful for the quick thinking of the one or two students, and I was appalled that the spray was used while the students were on site and downwind.  It is yet another way that the least important discover their lack of status in a hierarchical culture.

When I investigated later, I read that in 1995, the production, import, export and possession of DDT were prohibited in Thailand, and in 2003 the use of DDT for Malaria control was prohibited. Yet, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), export of obsolete stocks to Europe continues. I'm not sure if this apparent violation is the tip of the iceberg, compliance on paper only, or a way to get rid of an aging DDT stockpile. Because I'm not sure, I will continue to search for answers. My students know only to close the wooden shutters and draw the shiny fabric curtains. They don't know to protest. Who would listen to them? I'm also not sure how often they are exposed to these chemicals: yearly, monthly? How much is too much? Who decides? How much information does the guy using this stuff have about its danger? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? Right now, my lungs are a mess. I have asthma and my body registers damages within the environment almost immediately. I've learned to pay attention to my body.

A little background: DDT was discovered in 1939 by a Swiss chemist, Paul Muller. It was so effective at killing pests and boosting crop yields and so inexpensive to make that its use quickly spread over the globe. Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1948.

In 1962, Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, was published, and many began to question the wide scale use of such chemicals. Carson, a scientist, issued grave warnings about pesticide overuse, and predicted massive destruction of the planet's fragile ecosystems unless more was done to halt the "rain of chemicals." Many believe that her book launched the environmental movement. In 1972, the U.S. outlawed DDT.

However, the makers of the toxic chemical found buyers for their plants -- in S.E. Asia.

According to Oregon State University:

      "DDT is still widely used in less developed countries. And, ironically, when the last DDT  
      manufacturing plant in the US was dismantled in 1983, it was sold to Indonesia, where it   
      continued to manufacture DDT until Indonesia ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent
      Organic Pollutants in 2009, just three years ago; Indonesia is no longer manufacturing DDT. 
      Twenty five developing countries, however, got exceptions allowing them to keep using DDT, 
      because it is the cheapest and most accessible defense against malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. 
      This whole malaria and DDT issue is really tough -- between 1 and 3 million people die each year
      from malaria. 

No one wants to say whether DDT is more or less damaging in the long run. It can cause cancer, destroy whole species, and cause developmental delays in unborn children. It takes eons to break down, and malaria carrying pests ultimately develop a resistance to the strain. Is there a way to make safer products more available? Killing people and species with chemicals is not a better idea than letting them die of Malaria. There needs to be other, better solutions.

Oregon State University:

      In some cases, DDT is still effective against the disease-bearing mosquitoes, and many people
      feel that the benefits from continuing to use it for this purpose, which [they think] outweighs the
      risks. However, resistance problems are likely, and ultimately, will force a change in control
      approaches. For instance, there is considerable success with the use of bednets -- mosquito netting
      that is treated with an insecticide and suspended over a person's bed, protecting them during the
      evening and night when the mosquitoes are most active -- coupled with more effective 
      dissemination of anti-malaria drugs. Finally there are common sense measures, such as filling
      chinks in walls that fill with water and provide mosquito breeding grounds. 

There is a dire need for better drainage spaces that will carry the run-off from the pervasive rain, to more useful sites: rice fields, for instance, or through filtering areas that percolate the water safely and naturally. Surely the brain-trust on the planet can come up with cost effective ways, eco-system friendly, to reduce the infectious and disease bearing mosquito population by radically reducing places where it breeds. Perhaps this should be a science project for all sixth graders, all over the world. Problems of disease seem foremost in importance, and thus, a good place to focus our attention. The sooner we get to it, the sooner we will find solutions.

All students, especially in this learning community, need to develop critical thinking skills, because their country is desperately in need of their help. In Thailand, a favor offered is a favor returned. These students are the future leaders. They must learn to ask and answer difficult questions. They must practice these skills often in order to get faster and better at sizing up a situation and knowing what to do about it. They will inherit this country. I fear what's ahead for them if they don't learn necessary survival skills: how to think, question, act.