Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bhutto Assassination: Jihad for Dummies

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was not about politics. It’s all about suppression of women. There I’ve said it, the nasty mean ugly truth. Religion, especially Islam, is about suppression of women, part and parcel. It’s no accident that most religions, especially the Semitic ones, have prominent father-figures, even when they have no face, as in Islam. Apparently this replaced the old dominant Alpha-male in animal societies as we made the transition from proto-human scavengers to a human society in which cooperation and sharing are essential to a successful hunt. Otherwise we would be very poor hunters, slow weak and defenseless as we are. Hence we experience the birth of collective ‘artificial’ intelligence, culture, belief systems, and ultimately, religion. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have the same God and the same histories, up to a point, that point being the branch of cultural evolution that each followed independently, the Christians branching off approximately the first century C.E., Muslims the seventh, Jews being the common stock that remains closest to the ancestral roots. Muslims knelt and prayed to Jerusalem, after all, long before they had any Mecca to turn to. Jews still do. Sibling rivalries are always the nastiest. In their zeal to ‘reform’ the original core beliefs, feelings are easily hurt. Jesus turned the old slash-and-bash war god into one of love. Muhammad accepted this while limiting it to the nuclear religious family and returning to YHWH’s annihilation of his enemies, sparing only Christians and Jews, ‘people of the book’, while subjecting them to higher taxes. He appealed to tribal instincts by denying individuality and stressing Islam, surrender, to God and to tradition. At the same time he expanded the belief system to include the state as well as the individual soul, and expanded the concept of society to include taking care of the poor. This included the obligation to take many wives, since war created many widows. Thus women were quickly put in their place, in spirit if not in the letter. Even Ibn Battutah, the ‘Islamic Marco Polo’ complained in the fourteenth century, that Muslims in the Maldives allowed their women too much freedom, and Ibn was no homie.

If you allow women total freedom, what would result, after all? If that was a problem in ancient societies, imagine how it might be made manifest in the modern world. Women would soon be selling themselves and their services on the Internet, wouldn’t they? Yes, they would. Peasant girls from remote locations, linked to the ‘real world’ only by power lines and air waves, would soon be chatting up he-males around the world, giving them false flattery, a flash of a thigh, and the urge to merge in real time in virtual space. Then she lures him into her virtual ‘private room’, where she proceeds to take off her clothes and whip him into a virtual frenzy, all for the small donation of a dollar a minute. It shouldn’t take long. What was worshipped before the male war gods anyway? The female principle, exhibited in birth, is certainly the original miracle and its recognition as such is possibly the first conscious achievement of human thought. Whereas the Alpha-male in animal societies hoarded the harem, as some humans still do, the concept was made abstract for the new whiter brighter ‘naked apes’ on the scene, killing like lions and reproducing like rabbits. They had fertility rites and carved Venus figurines. As agriculture ensued and religions evolved, so did female worship. Prostitutes had prominent roles in temple rites, best exemplified in the Lady of Kadesh, representing the fertility God Astarte, seated naked on a lion, arrows in hand. As hunters became herders and warriors, these agricultural rites of weak sedentary people were seen as repulsive. All Semites, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim, idolized the herding hunting fighting and killing way of life. They needed a God fit for the task, and this embrace of an abstract monotheism occupies much of the Old Testament, especially in the Jews’ contacts with the culturally superior, but sedentary, Canaanites, founder of the alphabet which has been adapted and adopted almost worldwide. Sacred prostitutes wouldn’t be of much use on the battlefield, and are best left in the temple, where they remain to this day in some parts of southern India. Elsewhere they are rarely considered sacred, more often scared. They’re safer under cover of the Internet.

Hinduism and Buddhism have always been more sympathetic to the female principle, while progressing conceptually from the act of birth to a broader concept of ‘enlightenment’, as opposed to commandments, passive acknowledgement of the human condition as opposed to the active changing of it, conciliatory mediation between extremes rather than conquest and annihilation. This didn’t mean that no battles were fought, of course, only that the enemies were usually well known and the results fairly predictable. That was usually enough to satisfy the machismo cravings of a people with very little herding and hunting tradition. That is rice country, of course, densely populated and long settled, where conformity is prized above individuality, and the past and the family are co-equal with religion. The Buddhist reform of Hinduism was more a codification for export and a repudiation of its caste system than a repudiation of its essential feminine passivity. Though men may call the political shots in modern Buddhist SE Asia, women are the moral force that holds families and societies together. Not infrequently they handle the purse-strings also, deftly tucking bills away in nooks and crannies for future consumption. Control of the means of reproduction has always been the female’s original endowment and empowerment. It only runs into fierce opposition from the leaders of those religions who want to kill it by hiding it behind a veil of deceit. That’s not how evolution works. Evolution may be the survival of the fittest men, but it’s the survival of the prettiest women. I’d become a suicide bomber myself if I had to sleep with some of those Muslim women. Bring me a bigger veil, and a bottle of absinthe.

This blog post is dedicated to Benazir Bhutto, may she accomplish in death what she never accomplished in life. She was never a widely popular leader, and certainly never wildly successful. Muslim machismo would ensure that. Any corruption on her watch was probably no worse than the corruption on anyone else’s. She was lambasted for her ‘secularity’ even though her father was the one to institute Islamic law into the modern government, though certainly Islam ‘lite’ by today’s standards. Her problems were Pakistan’s, Islam’s, and increasingly, the world’s, problems: cultures in collision, intolerance, religious fanaticism, and ignorance. I personally thought she was a pretty hot babe until she went overseas and ate all that fatty food, becoming increasingly, uh… Muslim. The fact that she was G.W. Bush’s choice for Pakistan is a red herring. Given Bush’s scarce mental acuity and his oily politics, it’d be nice to think that the opposition must be the ‘good guys.’ They’re not. Islamic jihadis are a perversion of their religion and to humanity in general, trying to accomplish with religion what they are unable to accomplish with their lives and societies. This is the last gasp of an Islam that can only catch up by dragging everyone else down. Sound like someone you know? This is the last gasp of an Islam that has oil and not much else. Terrorism? Global warming? It seems like we could kill two birds with one stone if we could get that needle full of oil out of our arm. But that would take a big psychological adjustment now wouldn’t it? Change is possible, but religious sensitivities need to be taken into careful account. When Europe finally threw off the yoke of the Church a few years ago, they threw out the baby with the bath water. They are the Godless West of Islamic hatred, only recently emerged from the threat of Godless communists. Religion is better than that, better than politics. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are the head, heart, and solar plexus of our collective soul. Only by balancing them can we advance as a people, as a person.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Thailand and Mississippi-- Tsunamis, Hurricanes, and Home

When the tsunami struck southern Thailand three years ago to this day, Christian Thais asked me, “Is this it, the Apocalypse?” That’s what I want to know. You tell me. I felt that one, too, the earthquake that is, hundreds of miles away up close to the Golden Triangle. I was lying in bed on the upper floor of a house we’d just moved into. I thought it was falling down. Then I turned on the news a couple of hours later. Of course, other countries got hit much worse, but they were not major tourist destinations. Thailand had less than five thousand casualties, while Indonesia had more than one hundred thousand, but Thailand got the movie. Indonesia got dried food. India and Sri Lanka both had far more casualties than Thailand, but Thailand got the sympathy vote. Thailand markets itself so aggressively, that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s just publicity. It’s doubtful that half of what is taught in Thai schools as history is accurate. Immigrated from Mongolia? Huh? Why, because the region is called ‘Altai’? O-kay. Nobody’s sure who ruled the historical kingdom of Nanchao, so Thais claimed that, too. It’s like the old SNL ‘liar’ character played by Jon Lovitt. “Yeah, that’s right…” The psychology section of a typical Thai bookstore is filled with books on marketing. I shit you not. “I’m OK, you’re OK?” Naaa… How about, “I’m rich, you’re not.” The local Big C supermarket in Chiang Rai goes by the textbook in its marketing ‘techniques’ designed to confuse the customer, get him lost, and make him overpay. They’re evil. They’re the only game in town. I don’t want to talk about last week’s elections.

Then the next year a swath of coastline from Mobile to Houston was removed from most maps, and even worse than that in New Orleans, which got something of a double-bypass ‘soulectomy’, unlike anything seen since the War of Northern Aggression. I watched that from a stool in my favorite watering hole back home by the triangle. Let’s clear the air right here right now- nobody could have prevented the Katrina disaster, short of moving the entire city. I’m no big fan of the Bushmaster, but calling ‘racism’ because of N’awlins is a little irresponsible. He IS sleeping with Connie after all. It’s true; I read it on the Internet. But everybody ‘down there’ always knew that the Big Easy was a disaster waiting to happen, just a little too big and a little too easy for its own good. Maybe the people actually straddling that river of denial didn’t know, or care to acknowledge it, but in Mississippi we all knew. N’awlins was where you went to get lost, where you went to die if nobody loved you any more, where you went to do things ungodly. Sometimes those things ungodly would find you whether you went looking for them or not, part of the Napoleanic Code of Injustice. Everybody was in on the corruption. It can’t go back like it was before. Everything’s different now. Everybody’s watching. New Orleans will be re-born better, if not bigger. Global warming? Apocalypse? Why Aceh, New Orleans, and Phuket, home to thousands of jihadis, junkies, and other assorted pragmatists? Eschatology is the starting point of religion, mortality sandwiches.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about home. This is America. This is Christmas Day. Channel 28 here has nothing but a fire burning on TV all day. Talk about reality TV! But that triggers memories, just like it’s supposed to. You can go home again. Maybe Thomas Wolfe can’t, but I can. I have to, to see what I missed. Many histories are possible. How do you know which path you took until you actually arrive somewhere? Everything is relative to the point of measurement. That’s what time travel is all about, experiencing the same place at different times, without necessarily having to travel the entire distance to get there. You’re only limited by speed and memory. You can do it in pure memory alone or you can actually get up off your butt and go there. The only question is: what home? Americans have no ‘home of birth’ the way Asians do, the way Latinos do, the way most of the traditional world does. In Thailand you never lose that; that piece of land is your claim to nationality. Without a house registration, you are nothing. Rents are low, btw. A few years ago all Thais had to go to their ‘birth home’ to vote, like Mary riding Joseph’s ass all the way to Bedlam, belly full with baby and the future of the world. Fortunately it was a bright clear night. Except for the Deep South, America knows little or nothing of this. Up north the kids grow up and move out west while the old folks move to Florida. Nobody’s left on the old block except the second-string team, the ones who wanted to go somewhere and be something but couldn’t break the pull of gravity.

Hub and spoke traditional systems still hold sway only in the old South, so maybe you move away then move back, on and on in some succession of tentative pokes at the outside world, testing its limits against your own, with some sort of ‘breakthrough’ more to be feared than welcomed. This is possible largely because most ‘outsiders’ don’t especially want to move there in the first place, though that’s changing. Little by little the restless mobile virtual America is taking over, allowing people the freedom to fail without being subject to ridicule ‘back home’, simply because there is nothing there. Killers go berserk to seize their moment of fame simply because that’s all there is left in a virtual world, a body count and ads sold. In Mississippi everybody still knows everybody, and you can go back and find your best friend still sitting in the same old comfy chair you left him in ten years ago, older Budweiser. This conveys a certain responsibility upon all parties involved, kinda’ like village Communism, rule by jealousy and judgment.

But that’s still the dark side. This is not N’awlins, long drowning in the swamp, choked on its French roots and its Spanish moss, and Mississippi’s maybe a little too close to home. That’s the hand I was dealt, after all, not the one I chose. I still love it, of course, but with the love of family, not the love of spouse. I’m not Asian, my wife keeps reminding me. I’m American, forever young and rebelliousness by definition. After many trial runs, Flagstaff was the home I chose, or at least the US ‘home base’. It’s a dry cold. After ten years of semi-residence, I still keep a mailbox and a storage unit and a contingent of safe havens and various unresolved projects. Welcome to my world. After many more geodesic meanderings and tentative pokes and partial penetrations of South America, the elliptical orbits began to center around some ‘strange attractor’ in Asia. This took the form of a little brown-haired brown-eyed girl that could figure out a way to be a pain in the butt to the statue of Lincoln, all the while propping him up with enough faith and courage to keep coming around for more, though not enough to ever feel totally fat and sassy. I stay hungry. Who really knows what ol’ Abe is doing when not looking honest for the tourists, anyway? Scratching that pain in his butt, probably.

Well, the girl and I tied knots, literally wrapped at the wrist in white twine, and that meant that Thailand was to be the home I inherited, albeit with conditions. Chaotic love keeps you in random orbits that only appear normal when averaged. Call it the ‘flutter-by’ effect, related to the inverse ‘squared squared’ law of love in chaos, in which gravitational love is felt in direct proportion to the square of the distance from the source, not the opposite as in classical physics. Any closer and you crash on the rocks of bankruptcy and dependence; any farther and you drift into the ether, attached only in memory. The moon is slowly drifting away, after all. We just tend not to notice. It looks to be the same size as the Sun. That will change. This is a quantum world, after all, contrary to common sense, where familiarity breeds contempt, and everything is the opposite of what it seems. Your beer-drinking good-time buddies are the people who hold you back and you rely on the kindness of strangers to accept you at face value, your own best face. Only a few friends transcend the ordinary back-slap of gratuitous condescension and become a surrogate family, still there when the old man’s long gone and old age is coming on. This is my America, positively Fourth Street. Every city’s got one.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Jet-lagged in Flagstaff: Training for Iceland and Dreaming of Timbuk2

The plane glides down to the runway over images of grid-work houses and corporate-scheme commercial areas. This is California. America! Now there’s a concept, village life long relegated to the back pages of memory and a kind of nostalgia usually associated with young children at Christmas. Christmas! Now there’s another concept! But I feel nothing, either for America or Christmas, nothing but loyalty, the kind usually reserved for a long-suffering spouse, not like the passion aroused from more obscure objects of desires. This is Los Angeles, cold and abstract, giving action-packed thrills to Homies around the world, giving nothing but heartache to its own children, bastards of an Anglo/Espanol forced marriage that would never be resolved philosophically, but would be forever pacified under an avalanche of entertainment. That’s the American way, winning us a Cold War and, if Dubai is any measure, hard at work against the jihad. If it weren’t for home computers and the boom, we might all be speaking Russian instead of Chinese, and searching the aisles for BVD’s instead of DVD’s.

So here I am, freezing my butt off in the northern Arizona desert and thinking about the Sahara while training for the Arctic. I swore I’d swear off Flagstaff when the Hong Kong cafĂ© closed down, but here I still am, long after the HK was replaced by a combination sushi/tapas bar. Think fusion, that’s the modern Flagstaff, no more the Indian reservation border town with Navajo ladies wearing their bank accounts in turquoise. Flagstaff has long been sanitized for the back-flow of Californians looking for new sushi and burrito and noodle opportunities. That’s OK. I like those things, too. It’s just that the HK was my kitchen during my Dark Age here, kinda’ like Hop Sing’s for that Communist on Seinfeld. It also represented a direct link to a remote frontier past of Chinese cooks on railroad crews, chasing the dragon (I forget her name), when it was illegal to park in front of an opium den. That was a time before Chinese restaurants were categorized as Mandarin, Cantonese, or Szechuan. Back then there was only one kind: ‘chop suey.’ That era is fast drawing to a close, though you might still find it in out-of-the-way places like Gallup or Grants, NM, places where motels still go for twenty bucks a night and time has long stood still. But Flagstaff’s still OK. There’s still the incomparable natural beauty and the Hopi ‘rez’ is only a couple hours away; can’t get that in Cali. The influx of Trustafarians doesn’t make things any easier for the rest of us financially, but it can be still be more than ‘poverty with a view’ for anyone with some fresh ideas and initiative.

Today is the shortest day of the year. That seems like a good time to have jet lag, as if things aren’t weird enough already. Jet lag kills me. For the uninitiated, this occurs with drastic changes in time zones, and means that your body’s circadian (circa dia= 24+/- hours, get it?) rhythms are disrupted, meaning you want to stay awake at night and sleep during the day. Sound like someone you know? Some say it only happens when traveling east to west or west to east, but I don’t know. All I know is it’s like some druggie hangover and for me it can easily last a week. It’s like someone is following me around all the time, and that other person is me. Many people claim to have cures, but I only know misery. At least it doesn’t happen north to south. That much I know. The trip Rio to San Fran proved that. That’s a long flight, mostly south to north but also east to west. Nothing. No jet lag at all. It was almost like being normal, whatever that’s like. I’ve even gone more than half the way around the world, as if trying to outrun the jet lag, go so far that you’re normal again. Don’t do that.

The weirdest experience was when I was in Reykjavik in June watching the sun set at around 11pm and the strangest sensation came over me, as if the great conductor were cueing the orchestra from above. You guessed it, jet lag, coming on like a twenty-four hour virus. I’d only flown a few hours that day, from London, so any effect from those few time zones was inconsequential. To me that proves jet lag’s perceptual link to the Sun’s position in the sky. It was a fitful night, but I managed a few zzz’s, and in the morning, I felt fine, no jet lag. That trip only fueled an already-growing obsession with the Arctic Circle, defined by the fact that I have yet to actually get there. Since then I’ve been to Fairbanks, AK and Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories in Canada, but all of these fall a degree or two short of the full Circle, the degree of latitude that corresponds precisely to the degree of the Earth’s tilt, meaning that the Sun rims the horizon to a greater or lesser degree all year, never getting any higher than that same 23 ½ degrees in the sky. Sound good? I’m planning a travel guide to the Arctic Circle. Order your advance copies right here. Global warming, anyone? Let’s surf the Arctic!

So I’ll be back in Iceland mid-January for the first time since that trip 3-4 years ago. If you’re going to write a guidebook, you’ve got to see it during that long winter, too, don’t you? No problem, it’s only one night. That’s the nice thing about Iceland Air. Not only do they have some of the cheapest flights to Europe from the East coast, but you can stopover up to three days at no extra charge. I’d stay longer, but I’ve got to get down to Mali for the music festival season. It’s the strangest trip I’ve ever planned, and this is the revised simplified version. Originally I had planned to go to Norway, but then thought better of a week in darkness, once I got the Iceland Air bro’ rate, that is. Those rates are only good for one a month excursion, and… a week in darkness? If it sounds like a diet of frozen buns, be assured that this is as warm as it gets at the Arctic Circle during the winter, bathed in warm Gulf Stream waters, and sitting on the volcanic mid-Atlantic ridge. Should be about like Flagstaff, actually. Notice the symmetry? So how do you pack for Iceland and Mali at the same time (and including New York, which I haven’t even mentioned yet)? Very carefully. Stay tuned. And Merry Christmas! Let’s eat!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thai Food: a Survival Guide

I have old-hand friends in Thailand whose first introduction to Thais and Thai culture was along the canals in Amsterdam. For me, though, it was along the canals of Venice, Beach that is, LA, CA, USA. There I discovered my first Thai restaurant back in 1984. If it seems hard for some of you kids born since then to realize that there was ever a time when there were no Thai restaurants in the US, then believe it. It’s true; I’ve got witnesses. Though I wasn’t long in LA, so won’t swear that that little place along Robertson Blvd. was the first, it was the same in the Bay Area the next year, where I stayed for several, one Thai restaurant amongst a sea of Chinese and Mexican and Italian, back when that was considered ‘ethnic’. I remember it like it was yesterday, a little family-run place along San Pablo Ave. just outside the Berkeley city limits in Oakland, BYOB. Those creamy curries were like heaven for someone raised on soul food, enlightened by Mexican, and surviving on Chinese, colors and flavors mixing and mingling on the palate and palette in a playful synesthesia of the gods. The smart money was on the continued success of Thai food in America, and sure enough, they multiplied like Mississippi mushrooms in cow shit, like Farang bars along Sukhumvit in Bangkok. It’s nice to be right. A quick Google search of ‘Thai Restaurants—Los Angeles’ at this juncture is still going strong after a hundred pages, and that says nothing of the multifarious locations around the country and the world. Nothing succeeds like success. If you don’t have any new ideas, then copy someone else’s. You can’t get any more Thai than that. It’s nice to be safe. It’s nice to be in Thailand. It’s warm.

The reality here at ground zero is a bit different of course. For one thing, those creamy curries are not necessarily the most representative food of Thailand, and indeed can be hard to find for a first-time tourist. For another thing, those curries should probably not properly be considered ‘Thai’ in the first place. If their scarcity in the northern and eastern provinces is the first clue to this, then their presence in Malaysia and close similarity to the ‘Padang’ (Sumatra) curries of Indonesia is the next, presumably adapted from Indian curries by the same people who adopted and adapted Indian culture and religion. The Malay language was full of Sanskrit loan-words long before it was full of Arabic ones, after all. But Thais are the ones who introduced wet curries to the US and the world, so such food will forever be ‘Thai.’

Perhaps most importantly, those curries are not especially healthy, despite the universal tendency of ‘health-food’ counters and eateries in the US to include some mock-Thai dishes to lend some mock-cachet and currency to their selection. In addition to the excessive use of oils, frequently palm oil of lubrication fame, and the unnecessary use of sugar, which the Malays fortunately tend to avoid, the ingredient that makes those curries creamy is coconut, in a form known as ‘ka-ti’ in Thailand, the water/milk recombined with the meat into a thick creamy paste. Well, this is some tasty sauce that goes down easy, but there’s only one problem- it stays there. That leftover curry in the fridge next day has a crust on top, a breakable crust. “What kind of oil are you using?” I scream at my wife. But it’s not the oil; it’s the ka-ti. Like nitroglycerine, ka-ti apparently freezes at about 55F/13C degrees. Unlike nitroglycerin, it’s bad for your heart. So say the posters on the wall of Thai hospitals. The posters in the US would probably say the same if the product were widely used there. My HIV friend says that coconut in any form is strictly proscribed for him.

The Thai food available in Thai restaurants overseas is central Thai food. Maybe the best representative of this style is tom yam goong or tom kha gai, right tasty dishes if you don’t mind pulling weeds out of your mouth while you eat. Except for lahp, which is starting to be found more in the US, almost no dishes come from the north or northeast, which are more influenced by Burma and Laos, respectively, than the Malaysian-inspired dishes of the south. Some popular dishes in US restaurants, like pat thai and kaow pat, are street food in Thailand, and quite different from the stylized US restaurant versions. The curries and soups, on the other hand, might be difficult to find in street stalls in Thailand. They are usually found only at stalls specializing in curries, and not usually tourist oriented, though those dishes may be simulated in fancy restaurants. Spring rolls are also nearly impossible to find. That’s Vietnam. Probably the single most popular street food in Thailand, noodle soup, also originally from Vietnam, would be hard to find in a US-based Thai restaurant.

Then there’s the dark side. Northern Thailand has its own food, most famous of which is probably kaow soi, though more typical would be nam ngieow, a hot murky tomato-based concoction served over khanom jeen or rice noodles, and which people here in Chiang Rai go ape-shit over. Actually kaow soi in Laos or Xishuangbanna is closer to nam ngieow than it is to the standard kaow soi islam to be found here, a kati-based concoction brought from Burma. Then there’s gaeng awm, something like lahp that apparently got lost and then rescued a few days later, older but wilder. They also go ape-shit over som tam, which is shredded unripe papaya salad mixed with peanuts, tomatoes, crab, hot peppers, and only God knows what else. He ain’t tellin’. If you’re eating papayas to help promote bowel movements, this’ll get you there in a hurry. Naturally it’s eaten with sticky rice to help repair the damage. Does raw papaya sound strange? Thais also typically eat their mangoes green. Go figure. By the time they get ripe, supermarkets are discounting the price and I’m stocking up. Some varieties are actually quite tasty green, but I can’t help feel they’re missing the boat on this one, ripe mango being one of the finer flavors in the world. So, if you like green mangoes, hot spicy raw papaya salad, and gut-slashing spicy noodles, then northern Thailand might be just the ticket for you, especially if you like Mexican food already. Mexicans in LA are some of the best customers for Thai food in the not-so-fancy restaurants.

Let me clarify something for you people overseas or too down-country or up-scale to know or care. Sticky rice is not rice that somebody decided to ‘stickify’ for reasons culinary or esthetic. Sticky rice is properly called ‘glutinous rice’, because of its higher gluten, or protein, content. This makes it a staple food among the protein-poor country folk, who may eat it with little or nothing besides chili paste. It calms the stomach excellently, though you may pay for that with subsequent constipation. They don’t call it ‘sticky’ for nothing. At least is has some nutritional benefit. ‘Polished’ white rice has little or none. Nevertheless, the main problems plaguing Thai food are simply the indiscriminate use of salt, sugar, and hot peppers. If the food’s too hot or salty, Thais will add sugar. The inverse is also true. If the food is too sweet, then they’ll add salt or peppers. This totally misses the point, which is that the minimum of any these would be preferable, especially for health considerations. Thais tend to maximize for ‘intensity’ of flavor. Anybody who puts sugar in noodle soup needs a psychiatric examination, in my opinion, but there it is, every time. Sometimes the soup seems but a base for the combination of condiments within it. I’m finished eating while some Thais are still taste-tasting and stirring. Nearly every dish has sugar in it, and nearly every elder in Thailand has diabetes. Fortunately this is the type that comes and goes from one medical exam to the next. Huh? That’s the rap. When an American dies there is usually a single cause of death, of course. When a Thai dies, there are usually four, I’ve noticed. One of them is typically diabetes.

The over-dependency of Thai food on superficial condiments and less reliance on freshness and originality is what keeps it from becoming one of the world’s great cuisines. Though much is made of balancing the ‘five food groups,’ judging from the results, you might assume that these would be peppers, sugar, salt, and oil. And oh yeah, rice. A master chef could change all that, and indeed, some of the less-authentic ‘Thai’ dishes in the US are indeed tastier, and almost certainly healthier, than the home-grown varieties. My solution is to eat it with brown rice, which is becoming increasingly available, and eat it at home, reducing all measurements of oil, sugar, and spice by half. Not only do you increase the nutritional value, but now you can actually taste the flavors, since your tongue doesn’t have to run for cover. I swear by it. And oh yeah, beware of curries sitting out all day in stalls. Thais think that a ‘pie-safe’ will keep food safe. It’s paradise for bacteria. Curries are best mid-day. You’ve been forewarned.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thailand's not-so-Urban Legends

Thailand is a superstitious place. You might assume that would be in direct proportion to its percentage of rural populace, but that’s not necessarily so. ‘Thai Town’ in LA, CA, has seen posters sneaking up precipitously over the last few years, advertising the services of ‘seers’, people skilled in the art of charting your life by charting the stars, telling your future by telling your past. My wife’s father is one here in Chiang Rai. I believe he uses a system derived from the Burmese. That of central Thailand may be closer to the Cambodian system, reflecting historical influences. The first time he read my stars before his daughter and I got married, he warned me not to mess with Thai women. He may have had a point, but then, so did I. Nevertheless, many Thais will make no major movements in their lives without first consulting the ‘seer’. Thus Thai Buddhism deviates greatly from the central dogma, which I doubt that most Thais are even aware of, though the monks are, of course. Thai Buddhism is actually more of a combined Buddhist/animism, best exemplified by the jow tee, ‘spirit of the place’, who is usually provided a very auspicious place on the property and in the house of every Thai, a well-lighted corner usually. I’ve seen Thai friends rebuild their carport roofs at great expense in order to accommodate the ratsammee/halo space of the spirit. ‘The Buddhist Middle Path?’ That’s the short cut up the hill here to Wat Mengrai. BTW, the reverence with which the locals pay respect to Mengrai the Great’s statue at the five-way intersection is little different from that accorded monks and the finest graven images. Think eclectic. Think hybrid vigor. Think Thailand.

Thai Buddhism’s hybrid character thus takes on some unique characteristics. Of course any good Buddhist will ‘wai’ any Buddha image in his path, but sometimes that’s not convenient. So when a Thai drives his car past a temple, he’ll honk his horn instead. That pretty much accomplishes the same thing, I hear. These things are not done frivolously, though, mind you. If I playfully wave instead of respectfully wai, it’ll probably be a long cold night in the sack. The spirits must be fed, of course, so they get the same food as anyone else, which can be pretty elaborate on feast days. On normal days, they may have to make do with a little handful of oranges to last them for a week. As my father used to say about ants in the sugar bowl, “they don’t eat much.” Recycle before the bacteria take over. As some of you late-risers here may or may not know, real monks operate on pretty much the same system, making the morning rounds for their one full meal of the day. Other than that it’s pretty much just fruit or the like. Many stores and stalls specialize in providing pre-packaged CARE packages for monks, gift-wrapped and ready for consumption, almost always containing canned and packaged foods. If you go to the temple, then you should take prepared dishes. Yes, they eat just like everyone else, hot and spicy, pork optional. If you want a quickie marriage, just show up at daybreak with plenty of food, and then wait your turn to get your rights read to you. It worked for me. Our monk actually told my wife to obey me, a fact which I continue to remind her of on select occasions, to little effect. If you need it quicker than that, then you might want to re-consider the whole thing anyway.

A hybrid religion such as this is subject to many misconceptions and anomalies of course, one of the most obvious being the troupes of dancing girls that show up in most stage shows making the rounds on holidays, temples being no exception. Sometimes the shows go too far and the village people protest at their temples being used in such ways, though usually the priests and monks are complacent about it. Who knows what sort of financial arrangements are at stake? And if priests are in accord about the human body’s lowly status as a ‘mere vessel’, as the screenplay to ‘Tsunami: the Aftermath’ indicated, the local village populace certainly begs to differ. In the movie, the controversy was over the premature burning of victims before positive identification was made. In reality, funerals typically last a week, limited only by the victim’s family’s ability to pay for the festivities, and are heavily attended. The climax of the show, of course, is the burning of the corpse, and in the final minute, the casket is opened for viewing, probably a good idea given the potential for fraud. Well, the crowd goes wild and anybody who can, will rush the oven for one last view of the corpse, trading opinions on the curious positions a body can twist itself into and maybe the color of the paint of the car that was crashed into.

Other than the official superstitions of folk religion, there are dozens of little idiosyncrasies that Thais swear by, some serious, some silly. This includes a serious over-dependency on ‘magic pills’, little one-hit wonders that cure anything and everything that ails you, usually dispensed from well-handled old boxes with expiration dates conveniently smudged. Yah jeen, Chinese herbs, are also held in high esteem, though with little knowledge of which particular plant has what effect on what symptoms. If you buy in, apparently, then they work. Graven images can be portable and still do their juju, apparently. The Jatukam Ramatep craze currently sweeping the nation, amulets featuring a character from Hindu mythology, illustrates the phenomenon perfectly, though not exclusively. When Cambodians stormed the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh a few years ago, the interviewee claimed he got out with help from all the magic amulets he was wearing, famous priests plasticized into immortality. Thais believe in magic. Thais believe in ghosts. That’s what ‘animism’ is all about, and is still embraced whole-heartedly by many hill tribes, with or without the mediating influence of Buddhism. A ‘mystic’ or ‘holy man’ is thus a maw pee, a ghost doctor, or ‘witch doctor’ if you prefer. Christianity has also made inroads in the hills, pun intended, though maybe in proportion to their development aid. Many tribal people in Thailand have no citizenship, and the government is not especially sympathetic, unless they’re tribal Tai. Then there are the silly superstitions of a jilted lover chopping off all her hair in some act of sympathetic magic casting off the evil-doer. This is much healthier than the related phenomenon of chopping off the bad guy’s most prominent appendage, presumably the devil itself and the source of all the evil. Urban legends have these forlorn members being sent aloft on hot air balloons to prevent any hope of ever being re-attached.

Northern Thais think all southerners are ‘black-hearted’ even though Thais, and only Thais, are ‘good-hearted.’ Thais think all hill tribes are stupid, in direct proportion to the degree to which they’ve maintained their traditions, Thai traditions not on the table for discussion. Isan people are suspected Communists because of their Lao connections, and Laos themselves are the subject of much ridicule, mostly because they don’t speak proper Thai. They’re Lao, of course, so why should they? Still, much comedy is made simply by speaking Lao so that it can be understood, and laughed at, by Thais. Cambodians are held in even less esteem, though their ancestors are the progenitors of much, if not most, Thai culture. Farangs even get into the act with their belief in a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card, some sort of business card or letter of introduction that will scare the pants off any policeman and promptly accord status to the presenter. Whether there is any truth to any of this is irrelevant to me and the fact that fellow Farangs buy into such nonsense is ridiculous. This is NOT necessary to a successful stay in Thailand. Being respectful to your hosts is, even when they generalize you as unable eat chilies, unable to speak anything other than English, and being hung like a horse.

I used to think that unplugging appliances, especially during a rainstorm, was superstitious, but maybe not. All the TV public service ads tell you to do it, after all, and my mother-in-law assures me that TV’s blow up regularly during thunderstorms. I try to suggest that this is not likely without an outside antenna, but to no avail. But considering that electricity here is not grounded and much home-made jury-rigging goes on, she may be right. My clock gained an hour a day in one house where we lived, and I’m sure I lost a laptop to the power fairies. What else would explain the sensation of ants crawling up my legs while using my laptop in my lap, where it belongs. Rabbit-ear antennas can shock you and turning on the lights in the bedroom can send a shower of electrons across the TV screen in the other room. The healthy fear of electricity is probably a reasonable superstition.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thai immigration: will that be Visa? or American excess...

That Darwin guy is not making things any easier for any of us. No, I’m not talking about Charles, or even Grandpa Erasmus, but that guy whose canoe was lost at sea, then turns up a few weeks ago safe and sound, long declared dead, life insurance long paid to his wife. Only problem is that there are pictures of him in Panama during that time with his wife. Uh-oh, something’s rotten in Denmark besides old cheese. But that has nothing to do with Thailand, right? We’re all normal, aren’t we (unless you maybe grew up in a family of faith healers in the deep US South during the Segregation era, and the only clear-cut choice was to conform or rebel, but what are the odds of that?)? OK, so maybe we aren’t all normal-normal, but still we’re all honest ex-pats, hard-working, sober, and respectful, aren’t we? Well, yeah, sorta’ kinda’ maybe if you don’t ask too many questions. Certainly there are a few among our numbers who have skipped out on some child support, and a much larger number who’ve loaded up the Visa card while packing the bags, one-way ticket in hand. This works best with older retirees. This is why many companies in the US won’t accept cards with a foreign billing address. But here we’re still talking about the typical Western ex-pat, safe and secure, and these little problems are of small consequence to the Thai government.

But Thailand is a haven not just for Western retirees and adventurers, but also Chinese and Indians looking for business, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis looking for work, resource-poor but hard-working. And then the waters get really murky- Russians with Mafia connections, Arabs with jihad connections, and Nigerians with heroin connections. These people are the real problem. So what if some loose flakes get shaken out in the process? I’ve got friends who have crossed the border every month for years, getting a thirty day entry without visa every time. Some even have kids by local wives now. Many wouldn’t have air fare ‘home’ if they had to. That’s getting harder. Now you only get three of those visa-free entries in a six-month period, and then you gotta’ go get a visa somewhere, most likely Laos if you live in the North here. As long as you can leave, then you can stay, or something like that, seems to be the operative concept. But the new visa regulations in Thailand are not the real problem, not for me at least; arbitrary, capricious, and incompetent enforcement of them is the problem. According to the posted regulations, only ninety days of visa-free entry are allowed every six months. But the lady stopped me at Chiang Mai airport on my fourth entry within six months, even though it totaled up to less than ninety days. I had to go cross the Burmese border again the next day. Similarly, visas with two, or even three sixty-day entries are allowed with the same visa, the last entry occurring before the visa expires, usually six months from the date of application, though the traveler may remain in the country beyond that expiration date. That didn’t help me any last Sept. 27 with a visa that expired Oct. 29. She gave me thirty days. Mai bpen rai.”

Partly this is tit-for-tat. Other countries don’t throw open their borders to Thais, so Thailand doesn’t throw open its borders to them, except in a few cases. How many of you fellow ex-pats know that citizens of five South American countries get ninety days on arrival in Thailand, no visa required? This even includes Peru, one of the poorer countries in the American hemisphere. That would explain all the Peruvians here. That’s a joke. Brazilians have money and, loving sunny beaches, have certainly long since discovered Bali, and may very well have some numbers in the southern Thai islands, but other than that, the effects are purely symbolic. Even Korea, the only non-South American country in that favored list, has few citizens here, though Japan certainly does. Koreans are still Asian; they travel in groups; Japanese have long joined the West, culturally as well as economically. They do whatever they want. Nobody loves to travel any more than Thais, for example, but no one more hates to be alone more, either. When Thais travel, it’s not ‘How many people are going?,’ but ‘How many vehicles?’ And so they go, caravaning over the countryside, taking pictures of each other and carrying their little world(s) with them. Same with foreign countries- they’re surrounded by so many family and friends from home, that they may have no contact with the locals at all, except for maybe a few intermediaries and salespeople. But I digress.

If I thought that the new visa regulations wouldn’t impact me, since I come and go so much anyway, the reality is just the opposite. It’s worse, because that’s the first line of defense. Keep potential malingerers away from the start. These measures are draconian. At the Thai consulate in LA, not only do they want to see a return or onward ticket within two months for the standard two-month tourist visa, not only do they want to see hotel reservations, but they want to see bank statements! That is offensive. Bank statements are shared only between me, my wife, and my God. And this is from a consulate that won’t even accept cash because of the risk of corruption?! I refuse. Still I persevere. The lesser honorary consulates outside the main ones at LA and New York are a bit more sympathetic, and available! Be polite, and don’t let on that you’re visa-shopping, if you are. They might ask. As onerous as the new visa situation is, it’s certainly not the worst in the world, as some spoiled ex-pats say in the on-line forums. Many other countries are the same or worse. At least a Thai tourist visa is only $25. Brazil is $100 for US citizens, for purposes of reciprocity. That means the US charges them $100, so they charge the same. Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, not only charges $100, but they want to see a return ticket and hotel reservations and a yellow fever certificate at $100-150 a shot. ‘Cheap country’ doesn’t mean ‘cheap hotel’, either, at least not self-bookable by internet. Cheapest I found was €50 in Bamako. Bangkok’s half that. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a five-year visa. Some countries have gotten easier over time. Thailand itself used to allow only fifteen days without a visa the first time I came in 1992. The first time I went to Guatemala in 1977 they made me cut my hair, and then gave me five years multiple-entry, but only thirty days per entry. Now they give you ninety days, visa free, same as Peru, same as Thailand, if you're Peruvian.

I know where they’re coming from, probably far better than they know where we’re coming from. They want control of their borders, their society, and their public image. We want good lives, good and cheap. Like the H’mong, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha tribes who have filtered down over the last century or so, on the same routes that Tais themselves filtered down seven hundred years ago, the European tribes filter down by jet when they decide to ‘Phuk-et’, and the rest is history. It’s not that we washed up on the beach here because we didn’t know how to swim. Rather it’s because we liked the beaches here, warm and attractive. Some build new lives and accomplish things they might not have accomplished otherwise. Others ‘Phuk-up’ royally and someone has to come get them and accompany them back, the gravity of decadence is so strong, just like in the movie the Elephant King. Well come to Thai land, land of smile. Pero ten cuidado con la migra, hombre.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In Love and Politics the Dark Side Still Wins in Thailand

I doubt that anybody was too surprised when the tanks rolled through the streets of Bangkok last year except perhaps Doctor Taksin himself, he of the invincible luck and the impenetrable skin, ready to speak at the UN while the ground crumbled beneath him back home. This is how things are done, after all, in banana republics, where big ideas are planted in infertile soil, and democracy is left to its own devices in a culture barely literate. Thailand is the field of dreams, after all, just build the stadium first and the players will rise to the occasion somehow. Such a situation is ripe for a ‘big man’ populist promising favors, and so the Taksins, Juan Perons, and Huey Longs prey on the hopes and dreams of its mostly rural populace, doling out petty favors in return for undying loyalty, pennies on the dollar. To this day Taksin still has great support in Thailand, especially in the rural and northern areas, something which banning his party won’t change. After all Taksin created the party, not vice-versa. Buddhist passivity doesn’t help much in the political arena either, as easily seen in Burma, when people are easily convinced that good comes to the good and bad comes to the bad some how some way, though not likely in some Newtonian cause-effect equation, but almost certainly in some magical incomprehensible quantum effect. If it were comprehensible, then it wouldn’t be Thailand. And you can expect Taksin back at some point, if not before, then after the King dies. We may even want him at that point. After all, Thailand needs a Pa, and you know what the choices are. We’ll see what happens with the upcoming election.

Of course sometimes things go too far. Even my wife, not known for her political liberalism, gasped when I told her that Duangchalerm Yubamrung had been acquitted a few years ago. This son of a prominent politician not only shot a policeman in the head at point-blank range in a crowded bar, all for the crime of his foot having been stepped on, but then left the country while the police waited for him to turn himself in. After a trail that apparently led to Cambodia then Malaysia, he finally showed up after many months had passed, and stood trial for the crime. By then of course nobody ‘really remembered what had happened,’ and the young man was acquitted. Compared to this, OJ was innocent. As daddy said, “even a mother cat protects her kittens.” His son then entered a monastery and all was presumably made right with God and the world. Welcome to Thailand. But my favorite is the one about the prostitution king-pin and real-estate mogul who gave his short-term tenants notice of termination by razing their stalls one night as they slept. He later explained that he didn’t raze them; the demolition company did. As his case gained publicity and the details of his bribes to local officials for prostitution gained attention, he responded by running for the Senate. He won, of course. Thais respect a man with wealth even if the money comes from their own pockets.

So the conclusion to the popular soap opera Pruksasawart shouldn’t have come as any surprise last Sunday night. In this long-running series a young up-country girl goes to live with a prominent Bangkok family, where the older middle-age brother proceeds to fall in love with her. So does everybody else, of course, including the younger brother closer to the girl’s age. She likewise falls in love with him, but by this time, the older brother has already claimed his prize, and, for some reason that I can’t remember, his rights have priority. Well, the young girl spent most of every show crying, I’m sure including and even during the conjugal visit in which the act of engagement was consummated. Well, of course other things had to happen to pass the necessary nine months to bring this little love-child to full term, so another woman has to intercede and cause all kinds of shenanigans. The little fiancee’ keeps crying right up to the end, when in some flash of sympathetic magic, the girl decides that the older man is indeed her true love, even though he’s kept her locked up for most of a year, forced her into unwilling sex, and refused to allow her even the most minimal freedom to follow her own path. This is the happy ending that everyone wanted, except for the younger brother, of course, and the fact that he would’ve gotten the girl if this melodrama had been set in Western Europe or the US is little consolation. After all, these absurd circumstances would never have even occurred in a Western country.

Women marry for money here all the time. It has little to do with Farangs or globalization, just as slavery in Africa had little to do, initially at least, with those same Europeans or even the African war chiefs who took war prisoners and then offered them for sale as slaves. It’s just that the price of a human was well-established, just as it is in Thailand to this day. Last time I checked that was about $3k for a Farang and about half that for a Thai, though inflation has probably upped the ante. Marriage is more creative than that, of course, with multiple payment options and long-term financing available. That flat-rate ‘ante’ is usually more of a ‘post’, blood money to be paid in the case of accidental death. This is the reason that when Thais run somebody over accidentally, they might back up and do it again for the coup de grace; it’s neater and cheaper and if push comes to shove it’s still only the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Or so the pundits say. They also say that a Farang will never collect any money when a Thai causes a traffic accident, that by definition it’s the foreigner’s fault. I did collect, however, when a thirteen-year-old caused my motorcycle wreck. I swerved hard to avoid slamming into him and his three-year-old sister when they cut in front of me on a major highway. They got scratches. I got traction. Welcome to the dark side.

Once, shortly after our marriage, I jokingly referred to myself as my wife’s ‘owner’. “That’s right!” she responded. “How did you know that?” I swear to God she looked disappointed when I told her that I was joking. Pop songs use the term frequently in reference to relationships. This is the background against which planned marriages and marriages-to-order occur. It’s little wonder that half of all marriages here fail, and even less of a wonder that blood relationships are more important than the artificial relationship of marriage. You’re not likely to reject your own blood kin, though marriages are always subject to re-negotiation. Do Asians not feel the same emotions as us Westerners? I have a theory that tonal languages tend toward tonal emotion, i.e. since inflection of pitch is rigidly prescribed for pronunciation, it is therefore incapable of being used to show feeling. In the process feeling becomes more rigid, if not actually reduced. The only pitch modulation left for emotion is volume, more or less, louder or softer. I better leave that one for later. I could talk all night, and I don’t need a fight, not with some Chomskyite. Nope.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mail Order Bride Biz Booms in Thailand

You’ve all seen the ads directed at single white males: “Get your Asian wife, your Thai darling, your Philippine dream girl, your Chinese fortune cookie, your Japanese cherry blossom.” They all feature a pretty thirty-ish Asian woman smiling radiantly for the cameras, exuding the good old-fashioned values of motherhood, well-scrubbed floors, dish-pan hands, and economic security. They might not directly speak of sex-on-demand or docile submission, but there is definitely a not-so-subtle message to take advantage of the opportunity to get a girl ‘unspoiled by feminism’. Apparently many men still appreciate the old-fashioned stay-at-home wife, guardian of the kitchen, keeper of the keys. Apparently many women do, too. Similar ads tell women to “get your Farang husband,” though the pictures tend to still be of women, since they’re probably better looking. Of course problems do arise sometimes. That Asian wife may not be so submissive after all and that smile may be little more than window dressing, and even serious problems such as spousal abuse and virtual slavery have occurred. This prompted the newly enacted ‘feminist endorsed’ International Marriage Brokers Act in the US, which attempts to monitor and regulate the booming business. This requires potential wives to be supplied with a background check of their foreign ‘dates’ before the relationship can proceed.

The practice of local women marrying foreigners is so wide-spread in Thailand now that the society is being transformed in the process. If it was taboo for a Thai woman to be seen with a foreigner twenty years ago, it’s certainly not now. It’s not only open, but encouraged. My wife’s mother even told her, once upon a time, that she ‘wanted a Farang son-in-law.’ The rest is history, and a new generation of Siamese is being created, whiter and brighter. If that was something once limited to sleazy settings and GI bars, now it takes place on the Internet, the world wide web of social intercourse without borders. Live cameras have revolutionized the process, allowing potential couples to ‘chat live’, more or less in jerky motion, building new lives and healing broken hearts with broken English. Peasant girls in the Thai countryside get up at three in the morning to meet potential suitors in Europe and America, gradually settling on mutual favorites and mutual favors, like ‘going steady’ on the world wide web. The men pay the company for this service, not surprisingly, while women join free. If a potential couple hit it off, then he’ll come visit, and see what happens. Many a happy marriage has resulted, and more than a few dollars have changed hands, lonely men with plenty of money joining hands with women poor in finances, but with lots of love.

The story can get complicated, of course. Many times couples are mismatched by age or life-style, economic or emotional incentives failing to close the gap between cultures. Sometimes the men are abusive or the women are manipulative. Sometimes the companies themselves are little more than outright frauds. One company takes the customer’s money with promises of hassle-free Czech girls, educated and daring, with US entry privileges only accorded EU citizens. Once the middle-class middle-age Americans pay their money, they see girls in tattered newspaper clippings, and arrive in Prague to find equally tattered women who’ve been promised a nice meal. No refunds, no exchanges. East Europeans, in fact, dominate the marriage brokerage transactions, especially Russians, perhaps because their white skin mixes easier in pockets of Europe and America where that still matters. Thai companies seem the most aggressive, however, their ads showing up on Google searches for brides of any nationality, whether Russian, Latina, or any other Asian country. Thai commercial instincts don’t hesitate to find the back door into any market.

Of course web cams have revolutionized more than marriages. Telephone sex was rendered obsolete the day that they hit the market. Now web cam cuties line the honeycomb rookeries of the Net like girls in the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district, scantily clad with little more than a laptop, ready to perform for you in their ‘private room,’ jerky camera but an appropriate little side-joke snicker. Some of the backgrounds look suspiciously like cheap apartments in Thailand, with sparse and uninspiring furnishings. In reality, not surprisingly, most of them are probably in the Philippines. Problems arise when customers for these sites expect similar responses from good girls in legitimate dating services. Kinda’ makes you wonder what’s next. I think the Thai government’s given it some thought, hence recent attempts to make visa applications stricter and 'restore social order' by closing nightspots well before daybreak. I doubt that girls are the number one export in Thailand yet, but, like the slaving period in Africa, you have to wonder if they’re aren’t some profound sociological repercussions in the works as social demographics become shifted. The Philippines, for one, has outlawed the marriage brokerage business locally, though that hasn’t stopped other companies from ‘out-sourcing’ to the Philippines. Pinoys do speak good English, after all. Personally I wonder what happened to the good old days when you could meet women in bars. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be, after all?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thailand’s F***** word

Farang: 1) person of European extraction, 2. anything of European extraction, 3. guava. So here in Thailand potatoes are man farang, white people are khon farang, and Christmas is trut farang, ad infinitum.

So go the Thai dictionaries, talking much and explaining nothing, not least of which is the origin of the f****** word. It follows you around like a bad smell if you’re a white person in Thailand. It speaks volumes if you’re Thai. It explains why the weather’s hot and the food is not. It explains why some cars are big and so are some bellies. In fact, there’s not much that can’t be described as either Thai or Farang, or maybe sometimes Chinese, but that’s a sore subject, because Thais are sure of nothing so much as that they’re NOT Chinese, even though, genetically, well, you’d be hard-pressed to find the chromosomal difference and in raw immigration figures, well, that’s OK, because they ‘become’ Thai, if not in the first generation, then at least by the second or third. That’s convenient, since their features are largely indistinguishable facially and racially. It’s even more convenient since they run the country. Chinese names are forbidden to be used by Thai citizens and Chinese language is only recently making a comeback because of its obvious commercial utility and the success of the China Dolls’ song ‘Wo Ai Ni’ across the sub-continent in both Thai and Mandarin languages. Thais are nothing if not pragmatic. The number of pragmatists walking the streets of Pattaya after midnight would shock the socks, and maybe more, off Jesus, Muhammad, and Hasan-e Sabbah, too. The Buddha just smiles. He’s seen all this before.

Farangs are different, regardless of what you call them, be it Gringo, Gaijin, or Lao Wai. They have to mess with everything, sticking their big noses where they don’t belong, Africa, Asia, and America, building factories and building fences, drawing lines and claiming countries. The last Mexican governor of California Pio Pico probably said it best as he saw his state being overrun by Yankees “cultivating farms, establishing vineyards, erecting mills, sawing up lumber, building workshops, and doing a thousand other things which seem natural to them, but which Californians (i.e. Mexicans) neglect or despise.” And he was Spanish, a European mind you, so the distinction is as much cultural as racial. This has always been my objection to the term ‘Farang’, in that the white skin itself means nothing, and says much more about the person using the term than the persons referred to. Does a Russian really have anything in common with a Portuguese person? In most cases the people referred to are northern European of course, they of the Industrial Revolution and the Big Bang for your buck, the same ones who forced China and Japan’s ports to open at gunpoint. Farang. They mess everything up. The nay-sayers have a point to be sure, the list of transgressions easily filling the narrow zone between Iraq and a hot place. But Farangs also brought “liberte’, egalite’, and fraternite’”, democracy and doughnuts, on their wish list. So the problem, if there is one, is largely academic, and depends on the tone of voice to establish its intent. Any word can be insulting if it’s said in an insulting way, and of course if I want to use the word, then that’s fine, just as any black American feels free to use the ‘N’ word.

My objection to the term ‘pahsah Farang’ (Farang language) has been especially vitriolic, objecting to the former Premier’s use of the term as especially misguided. “There is no such thing as Farang language! It’s English,” I would object. On this I concede defeat. There is a ‘pahsah Farang’ and long has been, likely even being the origin of the term in Asia. It started in the Crusades, when all Europeans were considered ‘Franks’ by the homies, and their language was the ‘Frankish language’ or lingua franca, literally ‘pahsah Farang’. This was not French, mind you, but a mixture of French and Italian and anything else handy in the Mediterranean region, maybe a final attempt to re-unify Latin. Marco Polo wrote in it, or something like it, it being fluid by definition. The term now means ‘compromise language, used when there is no common language’. The common jargon typically spoken by Thais with foreigners would hardly qualify as real English, but it would certainly qualify as Farang language. It’s as though nothing has changed except that Pidgin English has supplanted Pig Latin as the axis of Western civilization moved west, and the rest is history. And so is the mystery also solved as to where the term ‘Farang’ comes from. Most have assumed a derivation of ‘France’. Well, close, but not exactly, for those were the days of the Holy Roman Empire and nationalism was still but a racial wet dream. Thus those Romanized post-Gallic Germanic Franks left their imprint on the footnotes of history. They must have had a lot of gall.

Of course the issue is not so academic when you have to hear the word all the time, usually directed at you, if you’re of European extraction. It’s not so insulting as it is tiring, until somebody gets the bid idea to charge you ‘Farang price’. Now we’ve got a problem, and it’s hard to avoid when the government itself does it, as in Laos. Well, OK, maybe foreigners shouldn’t get the socialist subsidized rate on public transportation. I doubt they’ve signed on to the WTO. Vietnam even charges three rates, one for locals, one for foreigners, and one for returning overseas Vietnamese. Communist Vietnamese don’t miss too many tricks at turning a buck, usually at your expense. If the street vendor smiles too largely, beware! He’s probably ripping you off! Thailand should be beyond such nonsense, but don’t be too sure. Prejudices die hard, even petty ones. The local ChiangMai-ChiangRai bus at one point printed on the ticket, in Thai of course, that ‘full Farang price’ was paid. Huh? (I don’t make this stuff up btw.) Interestingly, I never found any proof that there was an actual price differential, so the issue, as usual, was one only of principle and symbolism and good manners. These things matter. Ask Kramer. The blurb was eventually removed at someone’s behest other than my own btw. I persevere, and have developed a non-responsive psychological ‘blocking mechanism’, which is basically a way of ignoring problematic speech and behavior. Ignore the ignorance! Now there’s some useful symmetry for you.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

CAMBODIA: Next Thailand or Last Resort?

The first time I went to Cambodia, some eight or nine years ago, it was pretty sad. The country was still recovering from the years of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist tyranny, the subsequent Vietnamese ‘liberation’, and prolonged civil war. As far as most of the outside world knew, the Vietnamese were the bad guys, so foreign aid was limited to the trickle of subsidies from a Soviet Union in terminally ill health. When the Soviet Union finally went belly up in 1991, political compromises around the globe began to happen rapidly in some sort of inverse ‘domino theory’, Cambodia included. The Vietnamese left, and Cambodia was again ‘open for business.’ But wounds take longer to heal than political stalemates, and the scars still showed. Eye contact was difficult in a country that had attempted suicide. The Khmer Rouge were Khmer killing other Khmers, after all. The best and brightest were long gone, either to other countries or shallow graves, all for the crime of being city dwellers in a rural country. Cambodia is the greatest culture ever to arise in Southeast Asia, mind you, now reduced to one of the world’s thirty Least Developed Countries, an honor it shares only with Nepal in Asia, Haiti in the Americas, and most of sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s all changing. Unlike Myanmar (they should rename the country again, this time to ‘Bummer’), Cambodia is not digging the hole deeper and looking ever further inward. Sure, Hun Sen is a strong-man, a one-man party intent on holding power, but democracy takes time, and Cambodia is not ready; neither is Laos. Stability is more important. Even Thailand has severe growing pains, wallowing in the aftermath of a populist usurper and the ghost of army coups past, true democracy dependent on an educated populace slow to develop. But Cambodia is looking up, and it shows in the faces of the people. During my visit there last month, I saw supermarkets, new construction, and a vital tourist industry. Mostly, though, I saw happiness, and a fresh attitude. Entire families line the river in Phnom Penh until 9pm, buying and selling, and partying in general. This spills over into surrounding neighborhoods, and includes cultural events such as traditional music and dancing. Phnom Penh now even has an annual film festival. TV is the same, local programming with some interesting content. Things are looking up, way up, something that hasn’t been the case since the 60’s, when Cambodia rocked and rolled while Vietnam wept and wailed.

The 60’s were a golden age for Cambodian popular culture. Inspired by Dengue Fever, the musical group, not the disease, I went looking for a resurgence of this musical spirit. I found the spirit, but the music is still lagging, mostly copying Thai pop songs with new Khmer lyrics. There is some interesting folk music, though, kind of a Mali-like Cambodian blues which I’d like to hear more of. I think I will. The country is highly likeable, and much diversified from its previous reputation as a haven for degenerate recreational adventurers, both sexual and chemical. Cambodia has much more than that to offer, from the beaches of Sihanoukville to the tribal outback of Mondulkiri to the ancient cultural heartland centered on Siem Reap to the bright lights of the big city Phnom Penh. The language, both spoken and written, is eminently learnable for someone with knowledge of Thai, and indeed is something of a linguistic genome project, charting the mutations and deletions as one language is cross-bred into another, something that occurs more often with English nowadays. If it weren’t for the Khmer language’s love of consonant clusters and the Thai’s abhorrence of such, you might assume a common source for both. If there is one, it’s ancient.

Whether Cambodia’s the next Thailand or not, a tourist Mecca for millions, I wouldn’t hazard a guess, nor whether that’s a blessing or a curse. Thailand is not an appropriate role model for everyone, certainly, though its recent economic successes are notable, and the comparison is an obvious one. Laos, for one, seems unsure of itself in a post-Communistic world, except in that it’s NOT like big brother Thailand, brash and free-wheeling, in much the same way that Canada is not totally like the US, despite its closeness, and has no desire to be. Laos tends to follow Vietnam’s lead, a country with which it has scant genetic relation, but a significant political one. Cambodia is different. Cambodia predates them all, and in an important sense, spawned them culturally, taking over where the Dvaravati-era Mons left off in the creation of an empire that encompassed almost all of modern-day Thailand and Laos and much of Vietnam. Khmer ruins still dot that landscape and the roads are open, even if all the mines are yet to be cleared. They probably never will be.

Multiple land entries are now possible from Thailand in addition to the ones with Laos and Vietnam, including one possibility that includes a boat ride to Sihanoukville. From there it’s only a 3-4 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh. This might be preferable to the all-day bus ride to or from Poipet, through a nice, but uneventful, Battambang (there is a coconut shake there that is to die for, btw). This is no small accomplishment consider the riots in 2003 that destroyed the Thai embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh. This occurred after an article appeared in a Cambodian newspaper accusing a Thai actress of insulting Cambodia by stating that she would only visit Cambodia when they returned Angkor Wat to Thailand. Ouch! Well, that may have been a fabricated story or a misinterpretation at best, but that didn’t stop Hun Sen from announcing that the little Thai cutie was not worth ‘even a blade of glass from Angkor.’ Though he may have had a point, this is not diplomatic, and major destruction ensued while the Khmer police looked on. The plot thickens. However bungled and misinformed the causes of this event may have been, the case of Preah Vihear (‘Pra Viharn’) is not. That set of ruins sits squarely on the Thai-Khmer border south of Sisaket in Isan, and for years was considered part of Thailand. That’s not surprising, considering that Thailand had previously occupied much of Cambodia, only relinquishing it as its punishment for playing footsie with the Japanese during WWII. When the International Court ruled in Cambodia’s favor in 1962, Thailand responded by closing the only access to the splendid, if small, set of cliff-top ruins. Only with the Khmer Rouge’s final surrender there in 1998 and the completion of a road from the Cambodian side in 2003 has tourist access become unlimited.

Despite the current thaw in relations between Thailand and Cambodia, Phnom Penh is still not the place to go for a quick easy Thai visa. I swore I wouldn’t talk about things like this in this space, but OK, maybe, later. Go check it out. If it’s not your cup of tea, then maybe it’s your cup of coffee. If you don’t like the local food, then maybe you’ll like the French bakeries. If nothing else, the ruins at Angkor are uniquely splendid, and if Cambodia is indeed your last resort, it may not be a bad one.

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