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Inconsistent Thai Values

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

After nearly a dozen visits and about six months time in the city, over the last several years, we have gotten to know Bangkok a little. In this city with a population of over 9 million people we can get anywhere we want to go…as long as our destination is near the Skytrain, subway line and boat ramps or as long as we can communicate with the taxi driver. Haven’t braved the buses yet but we do take the motorcycle taxis back and forth down Sukhumvit 22 to our dentist at the end of the street…surely risking our lives in the process!

It’s interesting to watch the people embarking public transportation in Bangkok. They stand politely aside as they wait for debarking travelers to get off before they step into the trains. (In China it’s an all out battle of people coming off against the people trying to get on!) Once on, people are usually very respectful…if they are Thai…careful not to bump each other.

One jaw-dropping gesture, for an American, is that anytime a small child embarks a crowded Skytrain or subway car with packed adults standing cheek to jowel, the nearest adult of any age will quickly jump up and invite the child to take his/her seat…leaving the beaming child to look up at it’s parent as if to say, I am really special today aren’t I?

We have never experienced a culture that has such implicit respect for their little ones. You never see adults scowling at children or admonishing them…in public at least. Children always get an admiring glance and an enthusiastic accommodation from adults around them. The interesting result is that you never see an unruly child. This is very humbling to observe. At home we often see parents humilating their children in public by yelling, shaking and even slapping or spanking them.

On the other hand, it is common for young women in small villages to leave their children in the care of others while they exchange sexual favors in Bangkok. A pretty young woman who was perming my hair, works in an upscale hotel beauty salon during the day and as a bar girl at night…her parents left to care for her two children in her northern Isaan village. It has been said that as many as one out of thirty very poor young women, who do not consider themselves prostitutes, will trade sex for money, dinner and shopping from the nearest Western or Japanese or Korean “ATM man.”

This activity often has more than the usual side effects however. Sadly, Thai women are often overcome with depression. It has been said that once Thai women consort sexually with a Westerner, the local Thai men will not have anything to do with them and they often remain single and without any way of supporting themselves. The Bangkok Post this week reported on a 23 year old young woman who had jumped from the Skytrain to her death on the pavement below because, her friend reported, her Western “boyfriend” had just broken up with her. From the point of view of the Western male, the gratitude and soft sensuous, accommodation of the Thai woman is a welcome relief.

I asked my friend, Jiraporn, a university professor here, who lived ten years in the States, what she thinks about this. “They are young and don’t know what they are doing. “Village families are poor and need the money the girls send home so everyone just turns their heads, she whispered kindly.

A Talk By Shirin Ebadi

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

Bob has been in the north for the last week so I joined the Foreign Correspondents Club the other day as a way of meeting other English speaking people in Bangkok.

Membership is reciprocal with Foreign Correspondents Clubs around the world; I first discovered the club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia a couple years ago. The club provides journalists with a venue and equipment for media activities but also provides memberships for other expats who live abroad or visit often…my category being “retired.” The club, in the penthouse of the Mayeena Building, sponsors activities like talks by visiting personalities like the Dalai Lama, has a bar and restaurant and a collection of English language papers, books and magazines.

So my first visit was to a talk given by Shirin Ebadi, the Muslim activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. The talk was very short…the questions by many of the media seemed designed for making their own statements about other governments like Burma, North Korea, the U.S. and Iraq.

Ms Ebidi is a self declared human rights activist (having once been jailed for her activities) and one of the many attorneys who are working together with many of the nearly 200 journalists who are currently incarcerated in Iran. She said that it is impossible to determine the exact number of people jailed for their human rights work because the statistics are not released by the government and families do not want to tell why their members are in jail for fear of reprisal.

Her most adamant point was that violence and war solves nothing but instead intensifies conflict. She added that Iran is not in a position to pose any danger to any of it’s neighbors. Then she continued by saying that it is left up to various Non-Governmental Organizations in Iran to go into neighboring countries with any messages, eg. human rights workers in Iran “are in agreement with Iraq’s Muslim leader, Sistani, who is adamantly advocating separation of church and state in Iraq.”

In describing her work, Ms Ebidi stressed that “the power of the pen is much stronger than the power of arms…the work of the pen can do more than an entire army,” she said. (Most of the people in attendance clapped in agreement when she commented that now that Saddam Hussein is going to be put on trial, the country must put western governments on trial too for collaborating with Hussein when he gassed the Iranians during the seven-year Iran/Iraq war!)

“So human rights activists are fighting for the freedom of the pen,” she said. “All societies need freedom of expression…the first stepping stone of democracy.” Regarding Burma, she said that the role of mass media is critical and the media should demand that the democratically elected leader and Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, be given her freedom from house arrest.

When asked for her reaction to the Muslim woman in New York City who led a group of Muslim women in prayer over the objections of male Muslim leaders, she said she was not a religious person so she couldn’t comment on religion…but then went on to say that all women should be able to practice their religion the way they want. Islam, like all other religions, can be interpreted differently but any interpretation must be consistent with today’s societies. “What is the true Islam,” she asked? She answered herself by saying that “we all have a small piece of the truth. We must believe in what we are doing and believe in our path and allow the others to follow their own paths.” But then she added that “many use Islam to impose their political will on others.”

The most interesting question was asked by a woman from the BBC. She wanted to know how Ms. Ebidi was able to be critical of Iran, a country, like Thailand, that considers criticism as unpatriotic, without incurring reprisal. Her answer was that sometimes activists are accused of plotting against national security, but that it is impossible for one person to make a complete change in a country and any change must take place through the people. “The world is a mirror that reflects the good and bad in us eventually,” she concluded.

A man at my table was a professor of engineering at a local university. After introducing myself (retired and a traveler) he wondered why I was interested in “this.” I thought it was an interesting question. I was kind of speechless for a moment since the answer seemed so obvious to me. Then I remembered that my son Doug told me that when they got married his Thai wife, Luk, didn’t know who Prime Minister Thaksin was…an example of the lack of general knowledge of and interest in civic affairs. The other person at my table was a woman who worked in the human resources department of an oil company who was going to be doing business with Iran. The man at the table had a slight Indian accent but side-stepped the where are you from question from the woman. I mentioned that I thought the speaker was very “cagey” in her answers…and the guy was delighted with the use of the word “cagey” but I admitted I had no idea how the word came to be used this way! I love this stuff.

Royal Wedding

Saturday, April 9th, 2005
I have both CNN and BBC on my television in my apartment so I often switch back and forth. It was interesting to notice after the nuptual blessing that the Royal couple was barely out of the church when ... [Continue reading this entry]

Trekking Northern Thailand

Saturday, April 2nd, 2005
gatQye8keZlS3vpnwrOvxg-2006186163905868.gif As soon as we returned to Bangkok from Bali Bob took a train to Chiang Mai for a trek in northern Thailand near Mae Son Hong. I stayed in Bangkok to have some ... [Continue reading this entry]

Jazz In Familiar Old Quarter Hanoi

Friday, April 1st, 2005
I had to check out of Thailand...thought my visa was 90 days that I got in Kunming in December but it was only 60 days. So at the end of March I had to pay a hefty fine at ... [Continue reading this entry]

Keeping Body and Soul Together

Friday, April 1st, 2005
In Bangkok we got a good deal for a month in a beautiful completely furnished apartment on a dead-end street in the upscale Saladaeng area...close to the Skytrain and the new subway that is running again after a recent accident. ... [Continue reading this entry]