Focus on the Good, Ignore the Bad


It really doesn’t matter where you live, and it almost doesn’t matter under what circumstances you’re living. Every day you have a choice to cultivate gratitude or to find fault in your surroundings. One way leads to happiness or at least contentment, and the other to misery for you and those unlucky enough to find themselves in your presence.


Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that our greatest talent lies in discernment. Nobody’s Fool, we are obliged to point out what’s wrong, who’s lying, and to remember these failings with pinpoint accuracy. We are the avenging angel’s right hand men, helping usher in the day of reckoning as it dawns.


As an expatriate, I am tempted every once in a while to offer my opinion on how the locals run this place. Certain that they’re simply too shy to ask my advice, I formulate advice in my head, ready to share it at the first opportunity. Because Thailand has been in political crisis ever since I first landed at the Bangkok airport in 2008, I have had many opportunities to offer such advice.  Someone who’d been here awhile took me aside and said “whatever you do, don’t say anything about the monarchy.  Nobody wants to hear your opinion regarding that.” I’ve heard it said “the most expensive advice you’ll ever get is free advice” but in this case, not so.


Thailand is the most foreign place I’v ever spent a lot of time.  Central and South America are simply Latin-flavored America compared to this place. As long as I keep my discerning eye focused on what I enjoy about these differences, I’m doing fine. And as long as I keep my mouth shut, I’m doing even better.




Harry and Bess’s Road Trip



Before World War II, we used to follow the Geneva Convention Rules of War when possible or expedient. We tried not to harm civilians. Sometime during World War II that changed, and we began to deliberately target civilians in both Germany and Japan. Dresden and Tokyo were firebombed with the newly-developed napalm. The canisters had been designed to break through the roof of an average home and detonate in the living room. The fire storms caused by napalm killed hundreds of thousands, many more people than died from atomic weapons. Regarding the Rules of War, seems like the gloves came off and they never went back on.


We chose Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the new A bombs because they were the only cities of size that had not already been repeatedly firebombed. In his radio announcement of the dropping of “Big Boy” on Hiroshima, Truman calls it a “military target.” Sure Harry, whatever gets you through the night.


Amazingly, after the Trumans left the White House they drove cross-country unaccompanied by any Secret Service protection. They drove from Kansas City to New York City, took in a show, stayed in hotels, ate in restaurants, and then drove home. You would have thought maybe they might have bumped into a person of Japanese, Korean or German ancestry who might have held a grudge, but apparently they didn’t and the prospect never crossed Harry’s mind.


In Korea we used napalm extensively on the inhabitants of what is now North Korea. The Koreans and the Chinese fatalities amounted to about three million people versus 33,000 American dead. Then in Vietnam and Laos, we repeated our fascination with dousing non-compliant civilians with burning rain. Again, they lost many more people than we did.


You don’t hear much about napalm anymore. Now we have drone-launched missiles that can be target to fly through an open window.


How They Drive Here


First of all, there is no driver education. People simply buy a vehicle and start driving, imitating what others do on the road. Therefore many of the concepts with which most foreigners were introduced to are unknown. Some of these lead to danger.

Thailand has one of the highest motor fatality rates in the world. The people who die most often are riding scooters. There is a helmet law here, but it is sporadically enforced, and almost universally ignored by young people who put great stock in seeing and being seen by other young people. So they put more effort into their hair and makeup than in protecting their heads from accidental injury.

Likewise, rear view mirrors on motorcycles are used for checking makeup and hair, not for looking behind before entering a roadway. In fact, almost nobody ever looks behind them, either by turning their head or looking in the mirror when entering into a stream of traffic. It’s just assumed that those coming up from behind will give way. Thais are big on merging.

There is no concept of right of way, which Westerners find infuriating and puzzling. If someone slides into your lane no matter how closely or unexpectedly, that’s just part of life. Because right of way is unknown, there is no incentive to choose a lane or to stay in in it. Signaling is rare.

In Thailand hardly anyone honks their horn. To do so would be impolite. In Vietnam, a much more aggressive place, horns are honking constantly. In fact, when I rented a motor scooter in that country, the first thing the person I rented it from showed me was the location of the horn.

Crosswalks are universally ignored. Even if those attempting to use a recognized crossing would press the button, wait and get a WALK signal, they would be foolish expect traffic to stop. Sometimes it seems that zebra stripes are a cruel joke, a way to herd targets in close proximity. Watch here:

Pedestrians cannot safely assume that they have any rights, and because any sidewalks that exist and almost always clogged with someone trying sell something, sometimes even the tables and chairs of a roadside restaurant, or a parking lot for motor scooters, pedestrians usually don’t bother to try to ambulate on sidewalks at all and simply walk in the street.


Why Isn’t Everybody Here?


Like many Americans on a fixed income (in my case social security) I found that I could not easily live in the States. So after traveling around a bit, I found Thailand, a perfectly delightful place. The food is good, the women are pretty and Thai massage is the best in the world.

Most costs are markedly lower than they are in the States, so much so that it makes you wonder which one of our leaders sold us down the river. Cell phone costs here are one-tenth of what they are back home, as are most medical costs, with the exception of pharmaceuticals, which are one-twentieth to one-fiftieth.

My smartphone bill for calls and seemingly unlimited Internet is $8 a month.  A new smartphone without the burden of a contract costs about $100. My rent on a two-bedroom house with a garden is $110 a month. A doctor’s visit costs me $12 (to see a specialist) My drug costs for two prescription medicines are $5 a month.

Housing is, in general, one-fifth, restaurant food about the same as housing, and transportation about one-third. So why doesn’t everybody in my economic position relocate?

Access to grandchildren? Too much stuff to get rid of? Vague yet crippling anxiety?

Find a Need and Fill It


I just saw a Facebook post that made me angry.  In trying to figure out why, I’ll first tell you what the post said.  “I’m trying to come up with a niche marketing site, so I don’t have to get a job. Does anybody have any ideas for me?”  This was on a Chiang Mai travel blogger Facebook page that caters to the needs of the self-described Digital Nomads, the postgraduate set who are hanging out in the developing world, living as cheaply as possible on their trust funds or parental allowances.  They’re big into TED talks and having coffee together, are never seen without a laptop or notebook, usually Apple, and are somehow convinced they’re the cutting edge and avante garde of some movement or other, though they’re not sure what.


I remember being young and lazy and vaguely feeling entitled, and if I could meet myself now I would cuff that long-haired loser about the ears and tell him to stop getting stoned, hanging out in coffee shops drawing the same psychedelic swirls with his thin-point Flair pen. When I taught college I would try to counsel young people who had obviously never been obliged to really work a rough job, and they would want to know my opinion about going to graduate school. I’d ask “What are you especially good at?” and they would answer, “I dunno. I was thinking about English. Or maybe Art History?”


The only advice I could offer them is the same my father told me.  Graduate schools are suspicious of people who want to hang out and hide from the real world. A good graduate school will only take applicants who show promise to catch fire and really do something. To these, they will find a way to support by letting them teach or do research. A bad graduate school will let you in and take your money, while letting your delude yourself a little bit longer.


I responded to her query, biting my tongue as best I could, suggesting that she “find a need and fill it,” and in the time it took me to write these paragraphs, she responded. “I was just hoping for links to sites that could help me clarify my thinking.”  OK, sorry, I let my prejudices get the best of me. It just seems to me that if you’re not on fire about something by the time you’re in your late twenties or thirties, visiting a web site probably isn’t going to help.


Maybe my emotional response comes from the fact that I, too am living the Chiang Mai, spending most of my waking hours on my laptop, and wondering what I should be doing with myself.  But I’ve got social security to keep me going here, so I can hang out a little bit longer, maybe a lot longer, drifting along without purpose.  Easier to pick on her than to face myself.


God knows I wasted enough of my life waiting for work that would prove easy and obviously profitable to come along and grab a hold of me. Helen Keller, born deaf, dumb and blind, had this to say.  “Life is either an exciting adventure or it is nothing.”