Thursday, August 16, 2007

Only in Thailand...

Last week, I read the news that the Bangkok police have begun using "Hello Kitty" armbands as a punishment. Specifically, officers who break rules of various sorts will be required to wear the armbands as a form of humiliation. You can read the article here.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this news. It surprised me a bit, as Thai culture generally is not in favor of humiliation or shame. "Losing face" by having your wrongs pointed out to you -- public or not -- is avoided. I don't remember ever having seen one Thai person trying to embarrass another, beyond your typical schoolchildren teasing about who "liked" who.

Then again, life in Thailand can be a little bizarre... in many situations.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Personal Feature: The Family Next Door

I've written several times about our neighbors. We were surrounded by many good folks who looked after us during floods, storms, illness, and household maintainance. Some were very loud, true, but for the most part we enjoyed our living situation. The family next door was very important to us throughout our time in Thailand, so I'll write about them today.

Who lived there, just a few feet south of our windows? The list included Ann (red sweater, in photo), her husband Rat, their son Nong Dae, Ann's mother Moon (flowered shirt), her father Som, her nephew Lek, and her older brother Boon. That list varied from time to time, because Rat is in the military and was often off at his post, and Ann sometimes went to join him for a month or two.

Ann was just a year younger than me. She came over to introduce herself on the day we moved in, and was pleased that we would be neighbors. At that time she worked a low-level job at the school district office. Nong Dae was not quite a year old, and he stayed home with his grandmother during the days. But when he started walking and became too much work for his grandmother to handle, Ann quit her job and had to find new ways of making money. During the course of our two years in town, she tried many different projects: making crepes to sell on the street and at local events, taking in laundry, making roasted corn and eggrolls to sell in the town where her husband was posted, raising fish, signing up with Amway to sell household products and cosmetics to the women in town... (It's true, I became an Amway member while I was living in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I bought the detergent.) She never seemed to be able to break even, though, and was often stressed about money and how to care for her family. When we left, she was about to start a bread-baking business. We sold her our oven for a very low price, and I tried to find some recipes on the internet that could be modified for Thai ingredients.

Rat was originally from northeastern Thailand. He was one of the nicest Thai men we ever met. He didn't drink alcohol and was quite devoted to his family. He and Ann met in Bangkok and were married several years ago. He was usually gone for 2-3 weeks at a time, and when
he came home he would do all sorts of household projects -- building fences, stairways, and other quality-of-life remodels. He worked hard and didn't get much rest.

We had many happy times with Ann & Rat. Our first Songkran in Thailand, they took us to the parade in town, and guided us home when the drunken teenagers got too rough. Our first New Years, they invited us over for a beer at midnight. We helped celebrate Nong Dae's second birthday, and watched him grow from a crawling baby into an active three-year-old with a strong personality.

This past New Years, we traveled with several Peace Corps friends to Pai, a town in Mae Hong Sorn province that is popular with tourists. It also happens to be where Rat is stationed, as it's near the border with Burma. Ann, Nong Dae, and Mae Moon were living with him at the time, so we were able to all meet for a day and do some touring together. The photo was taken at a park nearby.

There isn't much about life in Thailand that I miss, but I do think often about the people that we knew there. I wonder how they are doing, if Ann has managed to make any money, if Nong Dae has gotten bigger, if there is a threat of flooding this year.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No Chopsticks with Rice!

We returned to the United States in mid-April, and it was seven weeks before we ate Thai food. Astonishing!

But before we left Washington last week, Robert's parents took us to a "northern" Thai restaurant in Everett. It wasn't very "northern" at all, but the food was still quite good. It made me feel excited about eating Thai food again!

At one point, I looked around the restaurant and noticed that nearly all of the other diners were eating their food with chopsticks. This both surprised and amused me. Here is the truth:

In Thailand, people do not eat rice with chopsticks!!! They eat it with their hands (if it's sticky rice), or with spoons (if it's regular white rice). NO CHOPSTICKS. Chopsticks are used only for noodle dishes -- primarily soups -- and Chinese food. Not with Thai rice dishes. If you used chopsticks to eat rice in Thailand, people would think you were very strange. (As proof, I have provided a photo of a meal in a Thai home, at which we are clearly not using chopsticks.)

To be fair, when our food was brought to the table, the waiter offered us chopsticks. I imagine this was done because so many diners ask for them. Also, our place settings originally included just knives and forks. Thai people don't use knives at the table, and they don't put forks in their mouths -- only spoons. We had to ask for spoons at the restaurant. I would not have been comfortable eating Thai dishes with a fork after living in Thailand for two years!

Also, to be fair, I think that I myself used to use chopsticks when I went to Thai restaurants, because I thought that was how it was supposed to be done, and I thought it was cool. But now I know.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Before I joined the Peace Corps, I lived in a great neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Within walking distance from my house I could find Thai, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Afghani, and Italian restaurants. If I hopped on a bus, I could reach Greek, Mexican, Kurdish, Cuban, and many more. I enjoyed being able to eat food from all over the world. I also enjoyed living in a city with a large immigrant population. I thought this spoke well of Minnesota – that motivated people could come from other countries and build themselves a new life there. And of course, those immigrants had no trouble finding food from their own countries, even there in St. Paul.

The term “globalization” is thrown around a lot these days, often in a negative way. Many people blame “globalization” for job losses in America, because American corporations often hire workers overseas to save money. Other people worry that “globalization” results in a loss of local culture, because more and more people adopt a common lifestyle or consume the same products.

When I taught social studies in Minnesota, I tended to side with these arguments. Living in Thailand and witnessing some of the other effects of “globalization,” however, changed my understanding of the term and its real-life meaning.

While I in no way would want a local culture to lose touch with the elements and traditions that make it unique, I think there’s also something to be said for the spread of positive behaviors and traits from one culture to another. For example, the idea that women have rights and should be educated has a very visible and, in my opinion, positive effect on life in Thailand. I knew many strong, smart women there who benefitted from this relatively new development, and I thought about it often when observing my female students.

The fast food industry is often held up as an example of the less positive effects of globalization. Both in American neighborhoods and in other societies around the world, fast food restaurants are a symbol of a rather sterile, homogenized environment, in which individuality and variety are replaced by standardization and sameness. I don’t frequent fast food restaurants in the United States, primarily because I don’t eat meat and I prefer healthier options (though I’ve recently discovered that Burger King makes a fine veggie burger, good for a quick meal during an airport layover). There are times, though, when there’s something to be said for being able to walk into a place and knowing what to expect. I’ve been known to choose Pizza Hut after a long day of driving rather then venturing into an unfamiliar neighborhood in search of vegetarian food.

I wasn’t sure what to think when I discovered that Thailand, particularly in the cities, has no shortage of American fast food. KFC and Dairy Queen are easy to find in almost any province, and select areas have plenty of Starbucks, McDonalds, and Sizzler to choose from. Did this mean that American culture was “invading” Thailand and displacing the locals? Were the Thais who ate at such places being “forced” to do so as a result of local economics, or were they doing it by choice?

Thomas Friedman writes in The Lexus and the Olive Tree that globalization involves both “push” and “pull.” He describes a Taco Bell in Qatar as being appealing to locals on account of its “clean bathroom, international sanitation standards, smiling service and quality controls – all at a cheap price they could afford.” Kentucky Fried Chicken in Malaysia was popular because it symbolized “modernity.” While McDonalds in Thailand was certainly more expensive than a typical bowl of noodles on the street, it was also cheaper than many of the full-service sit-down Thai restaurants I visited with co-workers during my two years. And it was, most of the time, cleaner. Local people around the world have their own reasons for choosing American fast food, and who is to say their reasons aren’t valid?

I consider myself a world traveler, and certainly a USA traveler. I’ve been lucky enough to visit lots of different places and cultures. I know I won’t have the chance to go everywhere, though. I’ll probably never get the opportunity to see Ethiopia, for example. Does that mean I should never have a chance to experience Ethiopian culture, on any level? I don’t think so... and fortunately for me, there’s a few Ethiopian restaurants right here in Seattle to choose from. Friedman quotes a Malaysian describing attitudes in her country: “‘Elites here say, ‘You should not have McDonalds,’ but for the little people, who don’t get to travel to America, they have America come to them.’” Perhaps its overly elitist for any of us to say that those “little people” shouldn’t have that opportunity if they want it.

When we were visiting Malaysia, one of our last nights in a quiet beach town we chatted with a family from Sweden. The parents talked about how Indonesian beach resorts had been “ruined” by the arrival of tourist-oriented business, including fast food, and how they expected Malaysia to go down the same path before too long. I agree that serious efforts should be made to keep beautiful natural places from being spoiled by uncontrolled development. At the same time, those of us who are wealthy enough to go on vacation at beach resorts ought to recognize that other people have the right to improve their own economic situations, and perhaps they see starting a McDonalds franchise as their best opportunity for doing so. Do we deny them that opportunity? Friedman writes, “[Fast food franchises] proliferate because they offer people something they want, and to tell people in developing countries they can’t have it because it would spoil the view and experience of people visiting from developed countries would be both insufferably arrogant and futile.”

In summary: globalization is maybe not all bad.


I have found that keeping up with this blog while living in America is more difficult than I had expected! Between buying a car, visiting with family and friends, traveling between Minnesota and Seattle, and applying for jobs, I have little time left over for writing. I’m determined to write at least once a week or so, though. Same goes for my other blog, describing our various travels.

And now, I am happy to announce that I’ve been accepted at graduate school starting in September. Hooray! My life has direction once again. Life after Peace Corps is starting to take some shape.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Funny Toast

I haven't posted in a while, as we've been busy getting settled in Seattle and buying a car. The lovely cold weather, both in Minnesota last week and in Washington now, have been wonderful. This is the time of year that Jae Hom, our town in Thailand, breaks 100 degrees nearly every day. Yikes! I don't know how I survived.

Anyway, I was flipping through photos from this time last year. We had just spent a week on the beach of Ko Chang, Thailand, with Robert's cousin Karin. One morning at breakfast, we enjoyed this funny toast. Nothing like being greeted by a cat on your plate!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reflections on Buddhism and Peace Corps

Today Robert and I attended a discussion of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (TBD) at my father’s church. I don’t know much about Tibetan Buddhism, but I did live surrounded by Thai Buddhism for two years, so it was interesting to share perspectives and make comparisons.

In a nutshell: The TBD was probably first created around the 7th or 8th century AD. According to the introduction in our translation, it is read to a dying person as they are making their exit from this world. The book describes the challenges they will face as they transition towards either nirvana or reincarnation, and attempts to help guide the person towards a meditation on nothingness, or enlightenment. (Forgive any glaring errors in my summary; as I said I am no export!) It is clear from the text that enlightenment is the preferred outcome, but also that it is very difficult to attain, and made even more so by the karma that the person has earned during their life.

Robert and I had many discussions about our experience with Buddhism while we were in Thailand, especially in comparison with our own background and experience as Christians. What most stood out to us, consistently, was the Thai Buddhist preoccupation with making merit by giving to the temple in order to store up a good account for the next reincarnation, or afterlife, in contrast with our modern Catholic/Episcopal traditions of social justice here on earth to make life better for other humans, with faith that we’ll be in heaven after this life.

In other words, the Thais that we met were concerned not with the plight of fellow humans, but with their own next life, which was unrelated. In fact, Buddhism says that to ignore worldly concerns is the way to attain enlightenment. We, as Christians, have faith that we don’t need to worry about life after death – that’s already been taken care of, more or less, by the resurrection of Jesus – and we are encouraged to go out and do good works in the meantime. Although many Americans are not Christian, I nonetheless think that the constant desire and motivation for personal and societal improvement that is part of Christianity is also part of modern American culture.

I think that this opposite worldview, as evidenced by a comparison of religious traditions, had a direct impact on our Peace Corps experience. Robert and I were motivated – by a variety of factors – to want to do the best that we could for our students, most of whom we saw as the less privileged members of society in terms of their poverty and lack of opportunity. We saw improved education, health awareness, and access to advanced skill development as the best ways of helping our students. Our Thai counterparts, on the other hand, did not show much interest in these issues. In their worldview, the students were born into their current status, and a focus on change or improvement was an unnecessary distraction. This is not to say that they didn’t want to help the students at all; I knew many of good teachers who wanted their students to be able to read, write, do math, and brush their teeth properly, out of a genuine concern for the students’ well-being. But if the goal changed from maintenance to improvement, most of the Thai educators we knew lost interest.

Disclaimer: This blog entry is not intended to be a criticism of Buddhism. It is merely a reflection on how religion might influence one’s worldview and desire for improvement.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Return to Civility?

I recognize that I live in a pretty nice part of America. Minnesota is a great state, and my neighborhood is just about the best. All the same, during my first 12 days home, I’ve been continually surprised by the politeness and civility of the people I encounter.

Since we haven’t yet purchased a car, we’ve spent a lot of time walking around on various errands and family visits. There have been exactly two times that, while walking, I have had someone shout something at me. The first was last week, when walking with a friend and her 2-year-old. A car of young-ish appearing males drove by and shouted something I’ve now forgotten. The second was a few evenings ago, when I was out walking for exercise. Another car of young-ish men drove by and shouted something that I think was, “Run faster!”

In my pre-Thailand days, both these experiences would probably have bothered me a lot. “Why are they shouting at me?” I’d have thought. “What did I ever do to them?”

Post-Thailand, however, all I could think of each time it happened was, “Wow, that’s the first time someone has shouted at me in America!” and “Wow, that’s only the second time someone has shouted at me in America!” Living in Thailand, I had just gotten used to being stared at, shouted at, and pointed at all the time. Sometimes it was benign or even friendly, and sometimes it was most definitely not. It was just something that all of us Peace Corps Volunteers learned to live with, eventually, though I can’t say I knew anyone who liked it.

The other thing that has amazed me nearly every day since our return home is the way that people stop for us when we are crossing the street. We have a pretty good crosswalk law here, and a few years ago there was a lot of publicity about how cars that didn’t stop for pedestrians risked getting ticketed for it. I guess it worked, because I keep stopping at corners and intersections, waiting for cars to go by, and they keep stopping for me. It’s a little unsettling, but in a good way. I don’t think I ever had a vehicle stop for me in Thailand. Most of the time, I was on high alert, trying to make sure I didn’t get bowled over by a flying motorcycle, noodle stand, or pickup truck. Even in our little town, traffic could be pretty scary.

People talk all the time about the rude manners of Americans, but I’m giving high marks this week for the USA being pedestrian-friendly!

By the way, don't forget to check out my blog about our Cambodia-Malaysia travels at Kate's Travel Blog!