Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

While there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

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Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

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Thailand Variations

Some random observations garnered during my nearly three weeks in Thailand . . . .


Westerners tend to have the image that Asia, especially a country like Thailand, is backward, inferior to the US in sophistication, in industry, in awareness.  But I certainly saw no sign of any lag.  In fact, in the city, there were far more solar panels, far more signs reminding people to conserve, far more toilets with low flush options than I ever see in this country.  Bangkok is a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural center, and it’s more like New York than it is different, a polyglot city with multihued textures of all kinds.

I must admit that I was, to begin with, quite wary.  Because I had just read 1493, I was constantly aware of what the author calls The Columbian Exchange, the signs of Cristobal Colon’s rearranging of our crops, diseases, homelands.  Thailand is a perfect little empirical test case of a country.  It is near enough to Manila, the eipcenter of the Colombian trade routes, and it is a reflection of all the travelers who have visited for whatever purpose, but it is also a country that has been a crossroads since before the intersection of east and west.

The Thai people, apparently, were the Nanchaoan, living in the mountains of Tibet where they had settled after a migration out of India, through southern China and the Hunan province, moving gradually into the great river valleys of mainland Southeast Asia and settling among the Khmer, Mon and Burman populations whom they encountered on the way. By the 12th century they had established several small states in Upper Burma (Shans), the Mekong valley (Laos) and the Chao Phraya valley (Thais).  Along the way to their becoming Thai, intermarriage, mingling of cultures, sharings of all kinds created a diverse population who established the country of Siam in 1929.In fact, the word Thai itself connotes a congregation of various peoples, so the introduction of western crops, habits, ideas, etc., was embraced enthusiastically, and its effects are evident everywhere.

American corn — maize — is a favorite treat.  Corn appears in all kinds of ways in the abundant street markets — it’s an ingredient in their coconut cakes, it’s available roasted on a stick, just like at the NYC street fairs, and it’s sold in bags, de-cobbed and bagged all by itself.  Sweet potatoes dominate any number of dishes, and they, too, are sold roasted or sweet at both city and rural markets.

In Bangkok, a cacaphony of languages can confuse any eavesdropper.  Dutch, Russian, English of all sorts, German, Spanish intersperse with local words, and everyone, even in backwater corners of the islands, speaks at least enough words of English to buy and sell the abundant array of international products.

The sophistication of the Thai society is evident in some surprising ways.  Sitting in the lobby of the Chatrium Hotel, a mainstream, 5-star luxury establishment on the river that is frequented by businesspeople from around the world, I noticed a transvestite putting on makeup.  No one stopped to stare or point, and no one among the hotel staff seemed the least bit uncomfortable.  Overall, gay life is open and out in Bangkok, as it is in Ko Samui; certainly wherever I went, men and women held hands with and openly embraced co-genderists, and they were, if not flamboyant, then entirely without embarrassment.  I learned that to be a lady boy can be a great honor.  In many cases, little boys are chosen to be raised as girly-boys so they will grow up to be truly feminine, comfortable in women’s garb.

Teeth cleaning, a medicinal art that was already popular in China as early as the 14th Century, is highly evolved in Thailand . . . and very inexpensive.  For less that $20, a reputable dentist will clean your teeth using the airflow method — it feels a bit like sandblasting — and follow that with the traditional ultrasonic and then polishing techniques of the west.  It can be jarring to see signs that offer “Laundry” and “Teeth Cleaning” services under one roof, but that’s more a matter of real estate than business partnerships.  Further, it is very easy to find a good endodontist who will do inexpensive root canal, and implants, crowns and dentures are priced way below American counterparts, and they are superior.

Medicine in general is fairly inexpensive and accessible.  Not surprisingly, Thai plastic surgeons have perfected sex change operations and offer them safely, relatively painlessly and incredibly affordably.  Because there is no stigma, the procedures have been part of the mainstream surgery menu for many years.

Though Thailand proclaims to be a parliamentary monarchy, the King, descended from the line only begun in 1929, is omnipresent.  At the airport, at the movies, on billboards on the streets, in public bathrooms and shopping malls . . .his image is pasted everywhere.  At the movies, before the start of a feature film, everyone stands and watches a very moving, highly propogandized film depicting the happy, fulfilled people of Thailand praising their king, whose image caps the short in a burst of extraordinarily emotional music.  

 One thing that deeply disappointed me, however, was the absence of true respect for the indigenous animals.  Though their pictures are everywhere, no elephants are to be seen except at tourist parks, where the elephants are used as mules to take visitors for looks at the natural landscape.  

The animals are misused, and they are incarcerated, and their wild counterparts seem to have vanished into the hills beyond anywhere I would have visited.  Monkeys, also depicted on posters and logos as though they are beloved by all the people, are seen mostly on chains — in parks or on trucks that carry them to the coconut trees they are trained to harvest.

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Carla and the King of Siam

 

 

When I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, after 28 hours of transit time, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Placing my feet on the tarmac transported me, in a way, back to a simpler era, at least where travel is concerned. As I descended walked into the steamy evening and waked across the tarmac to the bus that would take us passengers to the terminal, I was reminded of arriving in Albuquerque in 1957, after a nearly-as-long flight from NYC. Then something thoroughly unexpected happened; I reverted to my then age.

Travel, especially over long distances through various time zones, can be like a drug. Sights, sounds, the very touchstones of reality can be altered so that the traveler walks in a kind of quasi-hallucinatory state, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting what may or may not be present. Entering the terminal, in my mind’s ear, a philharmonic orchestration of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I Overture rolled over me in flowing and ebbing waves emanating from the loudspeakers. Everywhere I looked were the multitudinous children of wise King Mongkut, and just to confirm that I had entered the realm of the play, I was sure that, right in front of me, standing next to the lifesize poster of Mongkut’s descendent, the current King of Siam, stood a prim but visibly amused woman, pursing her terribly British mouth and trying not to laugh at the antics of the children.

I hadn’t thought about the King and I — or even of the lovely pre-musical version Anna and the King of Siam — in many years, although as a youngster, I was moved to desire the life of a musical actress because of it. But I realized, once I had had a bit of sleep and had recovered some of my senses, that there was a logical reason why the images had so starkly assaulted me upon my arrival.

Like so many people in my generation, my first impression of the people of Thailand, formerly Siam, was created in the lush panorama of the movies. I took in the king’s exhortation to Anna that she learn to kowtow, in order to be a proper woman, and I believed that, however toothsome these people — of course, played in 1956 by beautiful but decidedly un-Thai actors — might be, theirs was a sycophantic, toady society, and they lived to serve their betters; women, moreover, were an underclass in a society of repressed people.

Further, like so many girls in the 1950’s, I believed that Lady Thiang’s plea to Anna to give in to the King, to beg for his approval, was exactly as Anna saw it, a paen to a kind of obeisance that a self-respecting Western woman must eschew. Boy was I wrong about the Thai. In its Western bias, the film actually fails to capture the spirit of the people in some extraordinarily insensitive ways.

From the moment I entered Bangkok, I was aware aware of the presence of lovely young models, male and female, wearing their prim, closely-tailored, white-gloved suits — costumes that misleadingly evoke a sense of a colonial Siam — posed welcomingly around the city. There is an ambience here that suggests the gentle sweetness of the people that both films were able to capture, and at every opportunity, they display a somehow disarming array of deference that belies the resolutely independent spirit of the Thai people.

Thai deference should never be confused with obsequiousness. Neither its women nor its well-oiled tourism machine and its well-trained personnel are in any way obsequious. I will talk more about the women in a later entry, but for now suffice it to say that whatever preconception I brought with me was shattered very quickly. There is a genuine respect underlying the deep nods that accompany the multi-meaninged prayer-hand greeting (called a wai) and the warm word of welcome, “Sawatdee-ka.”

These are a people who, unlike some of their more agoraphobic neighbors, take pride in sharing their culture with outsiders. They have nurtured and perfected a tourism industry that caters to pampering their visitors. In this endeavor, they know they’re good, and they don’t seem under any pressure to prove it to anyone.  They simply acknowledge that their guests are worthy of respect, as they themselves are. But they are not needy, not cloying, and they are unlikely to compromise their sense of propriety in the pursuit of pleasing their customers.

Surrounded by countries that have desired to dominate them — to greater and lesser degrees of success — and thereby to subvert the local character, Thailand has managed to ward off all conquerors. They alone among their immediate neighbors have never been colonies of European conquerors, have never been subservient to a western master. Except perhaps to the Western ideals of Capitalism. But who in the world is not?

The spirit of the local service staff can be seen in the style of their deference. They do not kowtow, they do not hesitate to look a stranger in the eye. They never hover, seeking to catch whatever crumbs of gratitude might fall from their guest’s wallet; they simply stand at the ready, willing to meet their customers’ needs but finding no necessity to go any further than requested. Among the myriad service industry folk who populate Bangkok, good morning or Sawatdee-ka and the joining of hands is not a display of supplication to the person being addressed; it is the simply a point of view. The hosts genuinely want their guests to know that their presence is appreciated. The visitor will never feel unfulfilled, but nor will the willing servant ever accept any level of deprecation. It’s a fine balance, intricate in its execution.

The second day I was in the city, at the Paragon Shopping Mall, was again reminded of King Mongkut and his progeny. Touring the river earlier that day, we had passed the King’s nephew’s palace — the king’s home was closed off for a celebration and procession, so we didn’t get to see it — a domicile that could have been the prototype for both films’ sets. Opulent, colorful, heavily guarded by sunny-dispositioned, smiling soldiers wearing their terribly British-affected uniforms, the palace stands colorfully among a varying population of river-front properties. It would be easy to assume, in the bias of a Western-trained eye , that all of this disparity is yet another example of the 99% being exploited and abused by the 1%. There is, obviously, plenty of that in every country, but along the river, people live in a manner they choose, a manner they have struggled to maintain, a manner they support would never willingly forfeit. And to even consider that every owner of a Riverside shack is too poor and too complacent to replace is an injustice to the people.

Later, when at an IMAX movie theater before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I was fortunate enough to witness the people’s devotion to their monarch first hand. Before the previews began, the houselights came up. An introductory strain of music played over the loudspeaker, and everyone stood, proudly, at attention. No one was monitoring the actions of the audience, and no one looked around to see if s/he was being watched. They simply, naturally stood in unison. The National Anthem played, and some of the people there sang. A pair of Russian tourists in the back of the house giggled nervously, not sure what to make of any of it. But the locals simply, gratefully, matter-of-factly sang a pledge of allegiance to their king. As soon as the music stopped, everyone sat down as a single entity and went back to munching on popcorn or twizzlers, but the moment was no less moving than the hats-off-no-kidding-around show of allegiance that precedes the beer drinking extravaganza at a football game.

It was all I could do to sit back down.  I felt like someone had just invited me to dance.