At least for photography. I mean, who wants to look at a perfectly restored, urethaned building painted in bright acrylics? Here, the Japanese tourists provide the intense color, with their delightfully loud skirts. This is Wat Chedi, in Chiang Mai, on a Sunday morning.
For those of us who grew up in Catholic countries, the crucifix is the most common image in art, and most depictions of Jesus on the cross display little variation. In a country like Thailand, where Buddhist and Hindu images mix and merge, there is a greater range of art, though the sheer number of Buddhas soon becomes overwhelming. Recently, I found a terra cotta sculpture garden in Chiang Mai, near the southern gate in the old city, and found it a fascinating place to take pictures. Even though the sculptures aren’t antique, they look it, covered with moss and various forms of algae.
When we were traveling in Viet Nam, we came across a statue factory near Danang. There, among the usual quasi-roman and greek nymphs and goddesses, was a life-sized, marble statue of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese George Washington. When the manager saw me taking a picture of it, she assured me that it could be mine for only five thousand dollars, including shipping. Just think of it! I could have been not only the first kid on my block, but the first person I would have ever known who owned a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho! Oh well, if it’s such a good idea, I’m sure it will come around again, as all good ideas and opportunities do.
What do we find exotically beautiful and why? I suppose if I were a rice farmer, I would see a view like this and think, “gonna rain again pretty soon. Better get that lower paddy fixed to handle the runoff.” For me, a lot of what I like about living here is that none of this reminds me of work. For a while I lived on an acreage in the middle of vast corn and soy fields in Iowa, and I found myself both discounting the local beauty and taking the weather personally. Frequent rain meant I had to mow, and heavy snow could mean being stuck at home for three days. Maybe this is why beauty is often so fleeting.
Thailand has no artistic avant garde. The longer I stay here, the more I realize it is impossible even to imagine one. Respect and outright reverence for authority make it impossible to react against cultural icons and institutions. There’s only one kind of getting goofy or zany that Thais can tolerate, and that’s when the fat guy with big glasses in movies and TV shows farts or falls down. Everything else has to be either cute, pretty or dignified.
I taught at the biggest state university in Bangkok. One day, on my way to class, I saw what appeared to be a student demonstration on the front lawn. Thai students, all in uniform, were holding cardboard posters on which they had written something in Thai. Standing at attention in the hot sun, they held their posters in front of them, while a faculty member spoke through a megaphone, giving them instruction. This, I realized, was the Thai version of a student demonstration!
Education here prepares students for what is essentially a feudal state. You take your place in a system that supports and celebrates a strict hierarchy. If you know and keep your place, you are guaranteed security. Buddhism teaches you to accept your lot in life because it is your karma. Thai education teaches you to follow orders and not talk back.
Nobody ever gets fired here. Those on the outs are simply transferred to an inactive posting. That means they still get paid and enjoy all the perks of their job, but no longer have to make any pretense of doing anything.
Thais are big into uniforms. Nurses, policemen,monks, students, boy and girl scouts, all wear uniforms with great attention to detail. A boy scout doesn’t wear just part of his uniform, he has every pin and ribbon in the right place. In a way, it reminds me of 1950’s America, when nurses still looked like nurses and nuns like nuns.
This time on a whim, on my motorbike. Just had to get out of town on the spur of the moment. Traffic was mercifully light. It threatened rain he whole way, but nothing materialized, at least at the lower elevations. Six thousand foot mountains come right up to the highway, and I managed to find a road that went straight up for at least half of that. It was chilly and slippery up there, and there were lots of trucks barreling down the driveway-sized road, trucks who naturally expected me to get out of their way. I took some pictures and headed back to town, staying this time at Malee’s Nature Lover’s Guesthouse. Last time I stayed at the Chiang Dao Nest, next door. They’re both near the Chiang Dao cave, which is enormous and filled, of course, with statues of Buddha.
WHAT IS CONTENTMENT, ANYWAY?
More than excitement, most of us are looking for peace of mind and contentment. You don’t get those from having an amazing view, or from owning a lot of things. Many people who retire abroad, and purchase a house overlooking the ocean, want to sell that same house six months later. An ocean view does not bring contentment.
In the developed world, advertisers are always stressing the benefit of convenience offered by their products. The implied chain of causality guesses that somehow convenience will lead to more free time which will then lead to contentment. Don’t buy it; it’s not true. We’re not hungry for convenience, but we’re starving for meaning.
Meaning comes from real connections with other humans. If you’re sitting in your new house in a foreign clime, perched on a cliff overlooking a dramatic view and you have no local friends, you’re going to be one lonely person staring at a scene that long ago ceased to thrill you. For you to feel at home, there’s work to be done: overcoming language barriers, making an effort to know and be known, and all of that is sometimes inconvenient.
Of course, all this is easier if there is a substantial expatriate community with whom you can mix. But still, if your only friends are other expats, and you simply ignore the local populace, life will not be as rich as it was back where you came from. You may be comparatively richer because of the relative strength of the dollar, but if you don’t embrace the locals your life will be poorer.
So how do you rub shoulders with people who don’t speak English? You could teach English, even as a volunteer. You can simply visit with kids at an orphanage. Poor countries have huge orphanages. A few blocks from our house here in Chiang Mai, there is a health food restaurant that gets its food from an organic farm. They could always use a few extra hands on a working farm.
But no one will come knocking on your door. Here, in my adopted country, my phone rarely rings, and I don’t receive mail. The postman brings me my water and electric bills, and that’s it. Facebook and email are my lifelines to the outside world. I like to make fun of Facebook as much as anyone, but being a world apart from family and most of my friends, Facebook seems darn important to me.
They start ‘em young here. I remember being recruited by the Passionist Priests at the age of thirteen. I spent a week in a seminary during the summer of 1963, to see if I had a vocation. They thought I did, I wasn’t sure. Somehow I think I knew the Beatles were going to hit America that fall and change everything. Anyway, these young boys look like they’re having fun playing monk, and who knows, some of them might stick with it later. I don’t know how many stay with it for a lifetime, but it’s part of their basic education. Even the King spent time as a monk when he was in his late teens.
The ties that really bind people together are those of mutual respect and empathy. It’s obvious to all parties involved that there are differences in background and situation, but the most interesting part comes from discovering the far more significant nature of our common humanity than noting the differences in custom. What really matters in all this? Make a foreign friend and you’ll find out.
The big temptation is to let money get in the way. It’s tempting to try to fix someone’s problems with money and then resent and avoid them them later. Far better to develop boundaries that allow you co-exist with people you care about, allowing them the dignity of managing their finances.
That’s easy to say theoretically, but what do you do when your neighbor has a sick baby and you’re the only one around who owns a car?
OK, so this making friends with the locals thing isn’t necessarily going to be easy, but it doesn’t need to be thought of as a minefield. How about, as a garden, with all sorts of strange, new, attractive flowers, some of which hold hidden thorns. Caution and care will pay handsomely.
But I’ll just take a picture with my new camera, a very impressive digital pro model, the Nikon D7000. Hope I don’t lose it. It’s so big and heavy compared to the little point and shoots I’m used to that I had to devote a special bag to carry it. And I have to attach the lens to the body each time. It’s a major undertaking compared to what I’ve been used to! But the results are worth it.