May 2006 Archives

Luckily I have been able to find some time to read a little bit this week. Today I finished reading "Gestures of the Buddha" by K.I. Matics. There have been many times that I have been visiting a temple in Southeast Asia and I have wondered what the various poses of the Buddha images meant. So when I saw this book in the bookstore, I had to pick it up.

One of the interesting aspects of Thai Buddhism is that there is a special Buddha pose that represents each of the seven days of the week. Every Thai person knows what day of the week they were born, and so that particular pose for their birthday is a special one for them.

But, as any American reading this knows, chances are I have no idea what day of the week I was born. So I found the little javascript below that tells you what day of the week any calendar day was.

It turns out that I was born on Sunday. So my pose is a standing Buddha with his hands clasped in front of him and his eyes open. It represents the time immediately after he became enlightened and he stood at the bodhi tree and stared at it for seven days without blinking. During this time, he meditated on the suffering of all living things.

I looked back through my photos and I can't find one of the Sunday pose. I'll have to be sure to take a picture of it the next time I see one. In the meantime, you can find out what day of the week you were born on below, in case you didn't already know.

On what day of the week were you born?

Enter your birthday (then hit the "Update" button):

Numeric Month (1-12):

Day of Month (1-31):

Year (eg. 1960):

Date of Birth:

Day of Week:

This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

And once you've found out what day of the week you were born, you can see which Buddha pose represents your day of birth.

After putting it off for over three years now, I have finally signed up for my first real Thai Language class. I've signed up for 2 hours every Tuesday and Thursday for a month. The first class is tonight.

Then, after one month, I am considering doing an intensive class: 4 hours every day Monday-Friday. Now that I have a more flexible work schedule, I think it's time to start getting serious about speaking Thai.

By the way, everything else is going fine here, even though I haven't posted anything in a while. It took me a week to get over the jet lag from my trip to the US, and another week to catch up on all my work, but it's all good now. Hopefully I will get a chance to write more every now and then.

A few days ago I wrote that as I went through this life collecting experiences, and tackling various unrelated challenges, I hoped that it would all culminate in something useful or worthwhile. But looking back now it seems as if I forgot to be thankful that I've even had a chance to be free to do what I want, where ever I want.

For some unknown reason, it's easy to forget that most people in the world don't have the opportunities that I've had. After all, I live in a city where the minimum wage is $4... a day. You would think that I would always be grateful for the life I live.

But many people in the world would be grateful to live on $4 a day in Thailand. A year or so ago I met a college-aged guy who spoke excellent English and had a voracious appetite for reading and talking politics. Because of these traits, I guessed that he wasn't Thai, and I was right: he was Burmese. As I learned more about him and slowly gained his trust, he told me that he was a political refuge -- an illegal immigrant in Thailand. Apparently he had taken part in some student protests against the government and when the government cracked down, he fled the country to live in Thailand. And what kind of life did he flee to? He now lives in a tiny room with a shared bath with no running water and a mat to cover the wooden plan that passes as his bed. But at least in Thailand he does not live in fear of unjust imprisonment, torture, or even execution like he might if he was still living in Burma.

The reason my Burmese friend was on my mind today was because I just finished reading a fantastic book about Burma, called "Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop : A Journey Through Burma in the Company of George Orwell" written by Emma Larkin.

The book, although relatively short at 200 pages, seems more like three books in one. First of all, it is an example of excellent travel writing, by giving a detailed and (what I assume is) accurate view of life in modern Burma. (Of course the country is actually called Myanmar now, but the author almost always calls it Burma.) The descriptions of the countryside and the small towns and the people remind me a lot of Thailand, which makes sense of course since the two countries have a shared geography, history and culture.

The book can also be read as a literary analysis of George Orwell's writings. As a young man, Orwell spent several years as a member of the British forces in Colonial Burma in the 1920s. "Secret Histories" makes the case that Orwell's books and essays that were written when he returned to England were strongly influenced by his experiences while he was stationed in Burma.

The third theme of this book is much darker. As everyone who has read any of Orwell's writing knows, his stories (Animal Farm, 1984, etc.) were not happy tales. They all had themes of misuse of power, corruption, and oppressive, authoritarian governments. According to the author of "Secret Histories," Orwell's books were not only influenced by his time in Burma, but have become an uncanny prophesy of modern Burma, where the government controls everything from individual people to the re-writing of the country's history.

Needless to say, "Secret Histories" covered some heavy topics, but the author lightens the story by weaving in eloquent descriptions of what seems to be an extraordinarily beautiful country. But the secret spies and the feeling that one is always being watched permeates the text. Take for example one section near the end of the book:

I walked along the single road that led out to the edge of town [of Katha]. On either side of the road were neat two-storey houses: some constructed with blackened wood, others built of faded timber and brick walls smoothed over with plaster the colour of egg custard. The gardens were filled with trees, and bougainvillea hung down from the verandahs. On each front porch there was an earthenware jar of water with plastic cups so that passers-by could take a drink. A woman holding a child by each hand strolled by with an enormous cabbage balanced on her head. Two elderly women sat on the front steps of their wooden house smokimg cheroots that seemed to me as thick as rolling pins. Every so often a truck thundered down the road, piled high with logs. Mostly, however, the traffic consisted of trishaws and pony carts painted in the bright reds, blues and yellow of a child's colouring book.

When the houses gave way to paddy fields I saw that Orwell's jungle was long gone. As I stood at the edge of Katha, watching a young boy on the back of a buffalo urge the beast through the mossy fields, a man cycled up to me. I couldn't remember seeing him before and he wore no uniform, but I assumed he must be [Military Intelligence]. "You should go back into town now." he said.

I nodded wearily, and turned round to walk back. The man cycled slowly behind me, weaving his battered Chinese bicycle in great figures of eight until I was safely back within the limits of Katha.

Unfortunately, I have lost touch with my Burmese friend. When we used to talk, he would give me small glimpses of his life in Burma. I would rarely push the subject because it seemed so personal and painful, but I wish I could hear more about his story. I'd certainly ask him if he has ever read George Orwell. I have a feeling he has.

Back home to Bangkok safely and fighting the usual jet lag, I can look back at this past trip to the U.S. and see that it gave me a chance to reminisce about my life, and to think about where I have been and where I am going. From catching a Mets game and thinking about my short-lived baseball career, to chatting with my high school buddies Betsy and Eric who reminded me of my time as a high-school nerd, and meeting up with various other friends here and there who saw me through college and my working life in San Francisco.

That was my past, but what about the future? Should I come up with a 10-year plan like Betsy has? What kind of work should I do? Do I want to be an academic? Or a travel writer? Or a major league baseball player? (Ok, maybe it's too late for that one.)

In any case, I think I will be taking a small break from all the crazy traveling I've done so far this year. I think it's time to concentrate on taking the next step, to moving towards the next chapter in my life, whatever that might be.

Yesterday was my last full day in the U.S. My parents and I spent it at a travel writer's workshop put on by National Geographic Traveler magazine. I must get my love of travel from my parents, and obviously I enjoy writing about the things I have seen and experienced, so my Dad (who is a communications professor, by the way) thought that a travel writing workshop would be a fun family activity.

And it was. It turned out to not be quite what we were expecting. And we were able to come up with a long list of ways it could have been improved, but it was a good experience for the most part.

And since last night was, in fact, my last night, I stopped a few stops short of our hotel to meet my friend Eddie for one more night on the town. I had seen Eddie when I was in New York a week ago, and my worst fears came true when one of the first things he said to me was, "You look fatter!" Thanks, Eddie. I swear I'll be back on the treadmill the first day I get back to Bangkok.

There are many things that I enjoyed in my "past life" as an American that I don't necessarily miss, until I experience them again on my trips back to the U.S. Driving on smooth highways with wide shoulders that are free of motorcycles, vendors, and chickens is one of those things. On our way back from Long Island today, I could really appreciate the convenience of the American Interstate system.

Today I realized that baseball is another one of those things. We spent the afternoon at Shea Stadium watching a great game between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. I just love baseball, especially when I am watching it live, on a warm summer day. Unfortunately, though, soulless Shea Stadium leaves a lot to be desired (I've been spoiled by Pac Bell Park in San Francisco).

As I watched the game I thought that perhaps being a Major League baseball player is the best job in the world. And one that I would never be able to do. I had flashbacks now and then of my less-than illustrious Dixie Youth baseball career as a kid. For some reason, I was never any good at baseball. I wasn't too bad at shagging fly balls in the outfield, but my hitting skills were non-existent. I guess part of the reason I love to watch baseball so much is that I have so much respect for the player's ability to actually make contact with a small round object coming towards them at 95 miles an hour.

But not only that, the game was, in my opinion, as perfect as today's weather. The game started out with a bang, with a few runs in the first inning. The middle innings went by quickly. (As much as I love baseball, I admit that the games can get a little long sometimes.) And the end was an exciting one, as the Braves battled back in the ninth inning, only to fall short by one run. Even though I wasn't really cheering for either team, it's always more fun when the hometown team wins.

So, it was another stroll down memory lane for me today, this time it was compliments of Major League Baseball.

My mother, father, and I have spent most of the day in the car, driving through Long Island. It's been a very educational trip for me, as my impression of Long Island was nothing like the reality. My lack of knowledge of the area showed through at the very beginning of the trip. We started from our hotel in Flushing, Queens, and I soon asked: "When are we going to cross the bridge to the island?"

My Dad was quick to rescue me from my ignorance: "Queens is on Long Island". Oh. Duh.

I was also expecting to see mostly urban or at least suburban areas. But most of the island that we saw was small-town rural, full of history that stretched back to the very beginning of the European experience in North America. There were centuries-old homes and churches and cemeteries around every corner it seemed. It reminded me a lot of the drive Piyawat and I took through Cape Cod a year ago.

But no complaints here: the drive was wonderful. We went out to the end of the South Fork of the island and then crossed two ferries and drove to the end of the North Fork. The day was capped off with an amazingly good dinner at a Greek Restaurant. With the amount of great food that I have eaten this week, I must be gaining weight. Oh well, I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can.

I'm sitting in the 3rd floor cafe at what is perhaps my favorite Barnes and Noble Bookstore in the world -- at Union Square in Manhattan. A diverse crowd fill the many tables here. So, instead of working, I spend most of my time just watching people working, reading, talking, thinking.

A young Asian fashion designer with a jacket, vest, and scarf all of three different colors and patterns and textures makes notes and sketches in a drawing book.

Behind the mix and match style of the designer, a round-bodied elderly gray haired man takes the monochrome approach with matching grey shirt and black pants as he flips through a comic book.

Two Japanese ladies thumbing through eclectic product catalogs and home design books sit next to me. I can only make wild guesses as to what they are chatting about in Japanese.

A long haired girl in a t-shirt and dark rimmed glasses sits by the window. An earnest concerned look is etched into her face as she makes her points to her male companion. Is she saving the world?

Across the large room, a table of Indian business men, sharply dressed in designer jackets and ties and glasses smile and nod and speak of important things. Perhaps they are tacking the same problems as the girl by the window, but I would guess that their approaches might be quite different.

Saving the world is definitely not on the mind of the pot-bellied middle-aged caucasian guy a few tables over. But I do wonder what he is thinking as he studies a Thai kickboxing book.

And perhaps a mirror image of myself sits facing me a few tables away. On his table is an open laptop that he glances at now and then. But he is seemingly more interested in scanning the room around him as he thinks, paying more attention to the comings and going than to what is on the computer screen.

The last three days have been spent in travel to and from Washington, DC, and hanging out with friends there. My main reason for going to DC was to try to get the 60-day tourist visa at the Thai Embassy that other expats had told me about. Sure enough, I was able to get a 60-day, single entry tourist visa to Thailand. The embassy warned me that if I didn't have a return ticket from Bangkok, then the Thai Immigration staff might give me a hard time. I have never been asked to prove that I had a return ticket before, so hopefully they won't ask this time as well. (Since I basically live in Thailand, I don't have a return ticket!)

I also took the opportunity to hang out with a few friends in the area. I stayed with Clayton, who was nice enough to let me crash at his place in Capitol Hill. (Or else he was just paying me back for his stay over in Bangkok a few months ago.) I also had a chance to have dinner with Kenley and to see his new home in Columbia Heights. I had never been to this area of DC before, so it was a new experience for me.

Last night I had dinner with another high school friend that I haven't seen in forever - Eric. I also got to meet his adorable 3 year old daughter for the first time. Eric and his wife Lacy (but mostly Eric) cooked us a fantastic dinner of teriyaki steak with portobello mushrooms. After dinner Eric and I had a chance to sit out in his back yard and talk. It was as if the 20 years since high school never happened, as we talked about some of the same things we used to talk about. After meeting with him and meeting with Kenley, I realized that even after all of the experiences we've had over the past few years, we are still the same people inside. Betsy and I talked about some of what we considered to be radical changes that have happened, but they were relatively minor changes because our core personality and beliefs haven't changed. We are who we are, and we will always be who we are.

After I picked up my Visa this morning, I had lunch with Tom, an old friend I met over the Internet years and years ago. (I'm not actually sure when we first met, but it's definitely been a long time.) It was good to catch up with him and to have a chance to make fun of his ridiculously huge Hummer in person.

This afternoon I drove my rental car from DC to New York, picked up my parents at LaGuardia, and headed back to our hotel in Flushing. We had dinner near the hotel at a fantastic Thai & Malaysian restaurant called Green Papaya on Prince Street in Flushing. After three steak dinners in the past four days, Thai and Malaysian food was a nice change.

So, I am not sure what we have planned for the next few days, but basically I'll just be hanging out with my Mom and Dad in the Big City. Should be fun!

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2006 is the previous archive.

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