A village funeral is one of the most common and complex events in village life. Briefly, it is a final tribute to a member of the community, an expression of sympathy for the family and friends of the deceased, a religious reminder of the realities of life and death, a community bonding activity, a way to make merit to balance one’s karma, re-alignment of relationships in the family and community, and (not least important by any means) guidance for the spirit of the deceased to leave the village.
Funerals comprehend the whole range of emotions and concerns: that death is suffering which is only partly softened by knowledge that it is universal, that the community has been weakened and reduced which is only to some extent repaired by the experience of the whole community being involved in funeral, by fear and anxiousness about ghosts of the deceased and others which need to be addressed as effectively as possible, and by concern to aid the deceased as much as possible by performing meritorious acts in his or her behalf. Since the most meritorious acts possible are those that support and promote the spread of Dharma, which is done by monks above all, monks have a central role in funerals even though the Lord Buddha left no instructions regarding ceremonies to mark life passages.
Resources and participation of every available, able member of the village is expected at funerals. Here in Northern Thailand nearly every aspect of the death, funeral and cremation of a body is public. It is as far from the remote, misty, pastel process in the USA as imaginable. In the first place, many people die at home, especially if their deaths are anticipated and considered inevitable. Family is close at hand. If death is imminent, attempts are made to have the dying person fix attention on the Lord Buddha and possibly to enunciate one of the names of the Buddha. When the death occurs the family makes the immediate decisions about the funeral, what auspicious day it will be concluded, how many nights of ceremony and chanting will precede it (normally 3), and who will be arranging what. These decisions are matters of discussion which gradually become firm.
One consideration is cost. Funerals can be elaborate and expensive, but there is nothing to be gained from ostentation beyond the family’s means. Nor, for that matter, is embarrassing frugality appropriate. A person’s status in village society is already clear to everybody. But the village as a whole, and not just the family, contributes. There are 2 contributions of money. One is made to a funeral fund, which is a voluntary insurance association. Every member of the association contributes a small fixed amount whenever anyone dies. The association pays out a lump sum to help the family defray expenses. But there is a second collection during the evenings and the last day of the funeral made by family, neighbors and acquaintances from far and near that is called “merit making”. The money is given to the family and may be their resource to pay hospital costs or accumulated debts of the deceased. In our village it would be unusual for a family not to “break even” or even have a small surplus after the funeral and cremation.
Some things cost money that comes from the family. The first expense is for a casket. Since cremation is common most caskets are made of combustible wood. Size and decoration varies, but in our village the casket is usually enclosed in an outer casket that is more elaborate. It was a contribution by a member of the community and simplifies matters when people are deciding on what casket to buy and burn.
The body of the deceased is ceremonially bathed. That includes, in some cases, just pouring water over one hand of the body, which is then placed in the coffin. In our villages the entire body is given a soaking.
In earlier times bodies were preserved from the time of death until the cremation by being stored with blocks of ice in the casket. If bodies were to be kept for a longer time, as in the case of paupers who were cremated as a group from time to time, or as is still the case with important monks or royalty, the bodies would be placed in specially designed containers and the body fluids would drain away until the bodies were desiccated. Now, as far as I know, it is universal to have the body “protected” by formalin injected intravenously, replacing the blood. But no attempt at cosmetic preservation is attempted.
The family also invests in a catafalque or platform (prasat sop) to hold the casket on the day before the cremation and during the cremation, if it is out in the open (about which more later). This framework is highly symbolic. It can be relatively simple or quite elaborate. But in any case it represents all the things that a Buddhist temple building symbolizes. It is many-tiered like temple roof-lines, depicting the “world mountain” or the world axis. In other words, it is a symbolic link between heaven and earth, between the next destination for the spirit and the present residence. But the decorations are two-fold, standing for time-honored cultural traditions while also suggesting nobility and human dignity, giving final honor to the deceased. There are craftsmen who produce these catafalques and the necessary accessories such as the three-tailed banner (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/three-tailed-banners). They are pre-fabricated and assembled on site.
Another expense is for flowers. (See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/flowers). They are provided by florists these days, although not long ago they would be collected and arranged from whatever was available in the community.
Since the funerals here in our village are all conducted in homes, and since crowds of friends, neighbors and family will need to be accommodated, men of the village are recruited as soon as the death is announced over the community public address system to help set up “tents” which are open sided awnings made of metal pipes with plastic-cloth coverings. These arrangements are completed with fluorescent lights and oscillating fans. The village owns these “tents” and they are available for whoever needs them. Plastic chairs also come from the village stock, as well as tables, cooking equipment, dishes, glasses and everything needed for feeding large crowds. In fact, families generally make donations of some of these supplies for the community or the temple as part of their merit-making in memory of dead relatives.
Each evening after a death until the day of the cremation there may be a ceremony which family and neighbors attend. If the deceased is well known these evenings may attract large crowds and the affair will include a meal for those who have traveled to attend. There may also be exhibitions of pictures or a video production that reviews the life and accomplishments of the deceased. A memorial book is usually produced for guests to take away. The book is usually a collection of chants and mantras for meditation, and may include an obituary of the deceased. But in our village such extravagances are rare. But even for the most modest ceremony there will need to be some refreshments and ice water.
This is not just for purposes of hospitality and to assuage grief. Since these ceremonies are for the benefit of the deceased the entire undertaking must be effused with emotions of gratitude. Meritorious actions are beneficial only insofar as they are received with gratitude. As the monk’s sermon is apt to mention, we cannot be certain of the disposition of the spirit of the deceased, but we can create as much gratitude and thankfulness as possible.
The largest expense is for the final religious service, the community meal, and the actual cremation. Crews from the village do the food preparation and cooking. The family decides on the menus, which can vary from quite modest to very expensive. However, since the food is cooked locally, in most cases, the cost is just for the purchases from the market. If the family is better off financially, it has become common to hire the big final meal catered.
For the final service a chapter of monks will be recruited. Since funerals are inauspicious occasions, the monks will be an even number; eight is normal. When they have all arrived the “ajan wat” (a lay leader who knows the laity’s chants) will begin the ceremony, the chapter of monks will chant traditional stanzas from Buddhist scriptures, one of the monks will chant a sermon (which may include some impromptu additions, or be entirely ad-lib) and the ceremony will conclude with water pouring as chanting is going on. During this final portion of the service the deceased will be featured in the chants and the family will be mentioned prominently in ways that are very similar to Christian prayer.
When the service is over there will be a ceremonial meal for the monks, and everyone else will eat at the same time. Funerals are one of the times when almost everybody in the village eats together. As many as 100 men and women (fully a quarter of the village) will be involved in meal preparation, dismantling the “tents” and sending the borrowed equipment back to the village hall for storage.
After the meal the trip to the cremation grounds will be lined up and then a procession will either ride or walk en mass. When people arrive at the cremation grounds they are generally presented with a souvenir as an expression of appreciation from the family; it may be something quite simple, such as a tiny jar of Tiger Balm ointment.
At the cremation grounds the monks will again chant. Then they will ceremoniously remove packets of monk’s “robes” from atop the casket, which is a tradition hearkening back to the pre-Buddhist past where religious ascetics got their garments from cloths left at cremation grounds. It is said that the reason Buddhist monks’ garments are yellow is because saffron was the cheapest dye in North India, very much the same rationale as Franciscan monks in Italy used dark dye for their robes also gathered from cemeteries. When the monks have finished, the “undertaker” will prepare the body and coffin for cremation. Legs of the coffin will be knocked off so it does not tip over. The lid of the coffin will be opened and the undertaker will anoint the corpse with pure coconut water. Cracking open the coconut could be what is left of a more ancient act of cracking open the cranium to release the spirit. If the body is a woman it will be turned over, face down. This is often accompanied by loud calls for the spirit to depart. The actual fire can be lighted in several ways. One of the more spectacular is to have one of the monks light a rocket attached to a wire that leads to the pyre. The fire also sets off fireworks that include aerial bombs (if the family can afford it) to signify the finality of the cremation and also to further dissuade the deceased’s spirit from trying to linger. More and more cremations are done in modern crematoria, which are ovens fired by electricity or gas. In this case there may also be fireworks but it is the smoke from the crematorium chimney that is to be noticed. The prasat sop is burned at the same time. With that the ceremonies are over.
On the second morning after the cremation the closest family members with 2 monks will collect the cremated “bones” in a white cloth prepared just for this. The bones are pulverized into dust and then after the priests chant briefly the powder mixed with phosphorus is ignited and expelled into the heavens.
That’s how village funerals are done around here in our villages in the North.
“Prosperity cults” and “prosperity benefits” are two phenomena that need to be distinguished and understood. Both are wrong from many perspectives. But they infect modern religions just as they did Medieval and Ancient ones.
To begin with the extremes, John Oliver, a TV personality in the USA whose weekly show lambasts and sometimes lampoons popular movements and beliefs, recently highlighted Christian televangelists who fill the airwaves with promises of divine rewards to the faithful who send in money, which the TV preachers use to buy jet planes and mansions. Earlier in the year Al Jazeera jolted Thailand with an investigative documentary about similar shenanigans going on with certain monks and cults. A bit earlier, a Hindu cult in India so large it yields political clout was subjected to the same futile exposé. I say futile because exposure of the truth seems to have little impact on the way people hand over money to these operators.
What are the characteristics that show these are “cults” as I have called them? I propose 4:
1. There is a single person in authority with no apparent outside accountability and no transparency about how decisions are made or reviewed. The preacher or guru is not functioning in response to higher authority.
2. There is a direct link between donations and access to the “center” where blessings are most abundant. In one famous Thai cult seating in the vast circular hall is allocated according to the size of contributions. In other cults access to esoteric knowledge is reserved for the more faithful. If faithfulness is determined by monetary measures you may confidently assume the organization is a cult.
3. The main attractiveness of the cult is its reflection of a consumer/elite/power mentality. It is good because it is grand. It is grand because its promises are extravagant. Anyone can prosper beyond their present circumstances according to prosperity cults, but those with the most to invest will, “naturally”, prosper most.
4. It is a cult rather than a scam if the leader actually believes that prosperity accrues to those who invest, “plant seeds”, or contribute. It is, of course, impossible to know what is going on in the leader’s mind unless there happens to be some unguarded moment when the leader ridiculed the gullibility of contributors, or a major lapse of the expectations of the faithful (as when the leader is caught living a lie). If the leader believes there is really no link between a person’s donations and the person’s prosperity a scam is being operated.
Far more pervasive and detrimental to all religions I know of, is the expectation of benefits from religion. In fact, I can anticipate protests from some of my own religious friends and family when I say that valid religion makes no promise of benefits. None of the world religions do. Yet most people believe that the very purpose of religion is some sort of benefit. Here are just a few:
· Prayer brings results
· Religion builds better citizens
· Religion promotes peace of mind
· Religion connects one to a Higher Power
· Religious practice assures one of a better life after death
· Meditation results in a higher level of consciousness
· Religion promotes social order
If religion does not provide assurance of any of these benefits, what’s the use? Not a few of the lurches forward for institutional religions were propelled by just such promises of rewards. The “Great Awakening” of the 18th century in Christianity was built on the promise of deliverance from hell-fire and damnation. The Neo-Pentecostal movement and its daughter the charismatic movement promised healing, divine guidance, and solutions to issues of daily life large and small. Buddhists where I live expect their meritorious actions to bring results. Sometimes specific prescriptions are made for one to undertake particular exercises or rituals to bring some form of needed physical, economic or social prosperity. Still, in Buddhism as well as Christianity and Islam, people are sanguine about the possibility that the benefits might be delayed beyond this life. It is enough if life is rendered at least tolerable.
So, if these benefits are not why religion is practiced, what is religion all about? And why would we want to undergo its rigors?
In classical Buddhism the Lord Buddha discovered the way to extinguish one’s ego, and thereby end the repetitive cycle of birth, aging, dysfunction and death. Meanwhile, for those unprepared or still unqualified to achieve the breakthrough to enlightenment, a robust society can certainly help combat and mitigate the effects of sickness, war, famine and despotism. There are two basic narratives in classical Buddhism. One is of the Lord Buddha’s encouragement for individuals to achieve enlightenment, and the other is his instructions for forming religious communities in the midst of secular communities for mutual support. There is nothing in either of these narratives to encourage the notion that following the Lord Buddha’s teaching and example leads to prosperity. In fact, the theme is to forgo the lure of prosperity.
In classical Christianity, Jesus had a lot to say about prosperity, all of it critical. Longing for prosperity (e.g. “love of money”) is an impediment to one’s ability to follow Jesus. For a millennium martyrdom and asceticism were standards for Christian perfection. Protestantism softened these indicators while sharpening the insistence that Christ has already accomplished everything that is ultimately important. There is no further need to strive for salvation. But this life is perilous and there is evil loose which is beyond our power to oppose without help as we travel “life’s way” along an indistinct path. We need nurses, guides and all manner of fellow travelers who are willing to sacrifice some of their personal well-being to help stragglers and strugglers. Indeed, we take turns, sometimes being those who are in need and at other times being the ones who can provide assistance and consolation. Those who abandon their companions and divert their journey in order to concentrate on acquiring benefits or other forms of enhanced prosperity fail to understand both their integral involvement in humanity as a whole (for the vast majority of whom circumstances are dire) and also the urgent injunctions of Christ.
And that is where the prosperity gospel and prosperity cults are not simply benign mistakes but pernicious diversions. What the prosperity gospel loses is concern for others. The most generous thing that can be said is that for some engaged in the pursuit of prosperity their concern is also for their kinfolks and those with whom they feel kinship. The rest are severed into “others” and either left to fend for themselves or helped conditionally. A world so splintered is a world endangered. Life in such a world cannot be sustained indefinitely. Prospects are made bleaker for the majority of humanity when prosperity religion prospers.
An explosion at a major shrine in the heart of Bangkok at rush hour on Monday night, August 17 which killed 20 people and injured about 130 others, raises the question again, “How fragile is Thailand?” [Thanks to the Bangkok Post for this picture on Facebook of 5 religious groups on Friday, August 21 honoring Monday’s victims; see http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/664608/ for the story. Thanks to Kamolrat Surakit for the picture of the Christian participants, in which all branches of the Church were present. How vulnerable can a country be when all major religions coexist peacefully?] Still, there are a surprising range of answers to the question of Thailand’s viability, which seem to depend on the pundits’ interest in particular issues. In general no one expects the country to collapse but the vulnerable points are worth listing.
1. ECONOMY Thailand’s economy has cooled down. Thailand is no longer listed as one of the Asian Tigers. Some wonder if the coming of the ASEAN Economic Accords on December 31 of this year will expose the economy to ruin, as key protective taxes and laws will presumably expire. Others worry that Thailand’s whole banking system is linked to artificially inflated real estate values leading to massive unrealistic debt.
2. EXPECTATIONS Thailand has developed a growing middle class with elevated expectations. Those expectations are basically two: that education will entitle one to income that does not involve concerted manual labor, and everyone is entitled to an education. Further, income should be sufficient to not only free one from hard work but also to provide a higher level of necessities, goods and services that used to be considered luxuries. To make up for a reduced work force in labor intensive parts of Thai life (agriculture in particular, but also construction and industry), mechanization and immigrant labor will be relied on. Meanwhile, jobs with higher skill levels will have to expand. This is a pyramid scheme, some insist, meaning it is not sustainable.
3. FOREIGN RELATIONS It is sometimes overlooked that this is one of the rare times in Thailand’s history that there is no external threat to its sovereignty and territory. Indeed, now that there is no realistic outside threat the vast military is redundant unless there is an internal threat, which is constantly being identified. Some say it is being manufactured through incompetence and others say it is by design. Pretty much everybody feels that at some level the greatest threat to Thailand’s stability and prosperity is the military itself.
4. CULTURE Cultural monitors are constantly concerned about the erosion of Thai culture by globalization. The developing and expanding areas of language, arts and to some extent religion are innovative, or imitative of other popular cultures. It is hard to maintain anything uniquely Thai in any area that is widely popular. Classical arts are not popular. Pop culture is not traditional. The worry is that if unique Thai culture fades, so will Thai identity, and then all will collapse. It’s a long-term process, but constantly mentioned.
5. SUCCESSION Finally, comes the question of loyalty of the Thai people to the institution of the Royal Family, and to whatever sovereign should follow His Majesty the King now revered but with health issues. Seen from outside the country, the entire social elite in this very hierarchical and patron-client society is vulnerable if the Royal Succession is vulnerable. Ironically, the very apparatus that is designed to deflect public interference or participation in royal affairs is the thing that makes the institution appear to be vulnerable. It is highly questionable that if this, one of the last of the Royal households in the world, were to be replaced by a republic that Thailand would crumble. No doubt the elite would have to scramble, but the country is not that fragile.
Stressed minorities always have trouble finding allies to help them advocate for relief. The gay and lesbian movement is no different. But it is important to be clear about what relief is being sought.
If the goal for LGBT constituencies is civil rights, our allies might be others looking for civil rights. Here in Thailand those might include the feminist movement, religious-cultural minorities, stateless migrants and refugees, or landless villagers. If the goal is status and respect, potential colleagues might be those stigmatized by handicap or disfiguration, by diseases such as leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) or HIV-AIDS, by sex work, or by their criminal past.
Here’s where the trouble is. An alliance needs to be large to be noticeable and powerful, but the more diverse the alliance the more targets there are for the opposition. For this reason alliances are hard to form and fragile. Thai feminist professionals looking for ways through the glass ceiling see only peril from having their efforts compared to those of transgender women and lesbians, much less to professional sex workers. What have ethnic Karen villagers wanting Thai ID cards got in common with same-sex couples wanting marriage certificates? Gay entrepreneurs in high-rise condominiums on Sukhumvit’s golden miles want respect money can’t buy but certainly don’t imagine affinity with kathoey boys on the streets below or with former sex criminals is a way to get respect.
So formidable are the obstacles to alliances, that few advocates would see any advantage in trying to form them. It would be better, wouldn’t it, just to forge an identity, as commercial brands build recognition? Notoriety builds fame fastest, but that usually is not how to garner respect, even though it works well for book sales. For the most part, public recognition for a social movement takes time, luck and patience. A lot of money for advertising also helps.
Meanwhile, rather than narrowing focus onto particular objectives (such as removing the requirement to specify “Mr., Miss or Mrs.” when applying for a passport), it might be expedient to broaden the focus to address more fundamental objectives. That was the conclusion of a think-tank I attended this week. (See the pictures above.) Our conclusion was that for LGTK (lesbian, gay, transgender and kathoey) people, stigma comes because of failure in sex and gender education. Bias and misunderstanding are perpetuated throughout the culture because they are never challenged. That’s the place to begin. We can acquire educational resources and validation from the medical and health sectors, and begin to supply supplementary material to key people at the local level. If that is our project, and we are not mounting a direct challenge to those in power, we already have people and groups working on this. Rather than persuading them to join our movement, we can join theirs. We’re going in the same direction on the same road.
It’s going to take a generation to reduce social stigma that comes from persistent homophobia and ignorance. So why not concentrate on the young people who are ready to receive knowledge-based information and who are going to be the policy makers by the time anything else we could undertake will be showing results?
Water buffaloes are special. They defy categorization. They are farm animals but sometimes more than that, almost members of the family. They are given pet names. Love between a little boy and a kwai is sometimes hard to explain, but to call someone a “kwai” is a strong curse implying the person is an “idiot”. As if to counter this aspersion, a buffalo culture center has been built in Supanburi (an hour north of Bangkok) to show off the beasts’ ability to climb ladders and play ball. [All right, it is a reflection on human stupidity that the more like us animals can act, the more intelligent they are supposed to be; it’s the idiocy of most animal acts around the world].
On a real farm around here where we live in North Thailand, kwai were valued for their strength. They could pull plows and wagons. They were tough but (in line with their other ironies) they were also vulnerable to sun and insects. One of my former students told of sleeping under the house with the buffalo to keep a smoky fire burning at night to repel mosquitoes. Many farm children spent days of their lives tending buffaloes while they grazed and wallowed in the mud during the heat of the day.
Buffaloes still pull plows in outlying districts, but in our valley they are gone. The most beloved got old and died. The less lucky ones were sold in the famous Sanpatong cattle market or were taken directly to slaughter houses to be turned into meat sold at special prices in fresh produce markets. Kwai meat is favored by local connoisseurs of raw minced meat and blood dishes such as ลาบ หลู้ ส้า because the flavor is thought to be better.
The era of muscle power and self-sufficiency is over when the kwai are gone. Part of the culture almost as deeply engrained as elephants is gone. No more folk singing groups will choose the caribou as a symbol of their advocacy of the dignity of subsistence farmers. A coming generation will not be able to relate to the school-book stories of their fathers, nor to romantic pictures such as the one at the top of this essay.
RICE PLANTING is in full swing in our valley. The rainy season is officially here on this weekend after Asanha Bucha Day. It is the beginning of Buddhist lent. The tradition says that the Lord Buddha instructed his disciples to stay in their monasteries during the rainy season in order to keep from traipsing across rice fields damaging the newly planted crop. This, we are told, was a very compassionate precaution.
Rice is the main food of Thailand as well as the main export product. In the late 19th century HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, mandated the expansion of Central Siam’s irrigation canal system. This opened up large tracks of land for rice farming. The produce far exceeded domestic need so an agri-industry developed to buy farmers’ excess rice and ship it abroad. Soon rice export values surpassed teak, up to then the main source of foreign exchange. With the development of reservoirs, a second rice crop became possible. Faster transportation expanded agricultural export possibilities to include fresh fruit and flowers. Advanced processing capacity has opened still more options to include soy oil, corn oil and corn meal, palm oil, coconut oil and canned, dried, pickled and candied fruit, especially oranges, pineapples and lameyes. Farming has grown from a seasonal occupation to a full-time, year-round possibility.
Slowly, farmers have eased into the lower middle class, but in vast numbers. Even though the “middle-men” still work less, take fewer risks and make more profit, laborers have increasing expendable income and clout. The sheer bulk of the agriculture-based, laboring, lower-middle class has nearly leveled the balance of power between clients and patrons. The elite and those in the upper middle class still have control but they are hanging onto it more nervously.
Rice production methods are an excellent example of how the change has come. I am watching the evolution from my windows overlooking rice fields and orchards. This year, large (well, middle-size) tractors with roto-till plows were used on our rice fields for the final plowing. Just a year ago transitional technology was used.
A few years ago water buffalo pulled the plows. That by-gone age was non-mechanical, muscle-powered, intimate, hands-on farming. The transitional era replaced muscle-power with motor driven plows, still guided by hand by farmers walking behind. Farmers called their machines “metal buffaloes”. This was still hands-on farming with the farmer in intimate contact with the soil, knee deep in mud. But in the emerging, current era the tractor driver sits above the mud piloting a machine, pulling levers while the farmer stands on the side of the field and watches, waiting to pay for having the field plowed. The only foreseeable technological advance would be robotic tractors directed by humans from a distance or entirely by computer. This is not, I think, the direction development will take. If agribusiness elsewhere is any indication, growth will be in terms of size of fields and equipment rather than computerization.
But rice planting still generally includes an age-old aspect. The transplanting of rice seedlings is still done by hand, knee deep in mud. Broadcasting seeds onto a field reduced to slurry is not yet popular here in the North. As long as rice needs to be transplanted from seed beds into plowed fields it will be hands-on. When the fields become large enough to eliminate the transplant-phase the farmers will no longer own their land and will begin to grow distant from the production of their own food supply, and ours. The emphasis will shift away from a balance of tradition and common sense to maximized production without regard for impact on consumers or the environment. At the same time the annual agricultural cycle will fade in importance to villagers as it has for metropolitan dwellers, and culture and religion will change.
Gay Options in Chiang Mai
Retirement may not be the final phase for those of us who have chosen Thailand as our destination, our place in the sun to while away our golden years. Retirement is when we are rounding out our lives with fulfilling projects while filling in with interests we may have postponed. There could be a phase after that. I’ll call it “post-retirement”.
Of course, in some senses our final phases here may all be retirement: our last visas are likely to be retirement visas, and throughout this whole period we will not depend on employment to sustain us. Post-retirement will not be different from retirement in those regards.
However, there comes a time when our retirement emphasis is bound to shift. Our condition may have much to do with it. If we have medical complications we may need to go into a post-retirement phase of assisted living. If economic circumstances play havoc with our care-free lifestyle we may have to settle down. One indicator of post-retirement is that our plans do not any longer include frequent international travel or multiple residences in different countries. Another indicator is that we now function on our contingency plan, the strategy we decided on for “when the time comes”, because it has begun to come.
To be clear, not all of us in our post-retirement phase are radically disabled. Very few of us are, in fact. Some of us are keeping right on with our investment management activities, writing, socializing, community involvements, and our boyfriends and their families. Post-retirement, from another point of view, is a phase of living marked by some limitation that will not go away and must be accommodated.
Some of us have our contingency plan for retirement phased right into post-retirement. In my case I have a house and a spouse with a clan and a plan. They are my social security. They will keep on fixing food and responding. We do it for each other as we have for a decade. This could be the post-retirement plan for a majority of ex-pats getting old in Thailand. I see a lot of evidence of younger Thai spouses taking care of older men who definitely do not look like they were born here.
There is another large group of ex-pats who don’t think relying on a Thai extended family is a dependable way to go. Some just cannot imagine moving into a village in Isan, which they have sampled for a week at a time. That has been enough for them to know, “No.” Or perhaps their boyfriend is just not spouse material. Responsibility and a degree of selflessness would be character requirements for anyone to whom you would entrust your secure future.
A friend of mine here in Chiang Mai will be staying on without bonding with an extended family. The other day we went to look at Dok Kaew Gardens. They have two levels of care. I would call them “semi-independent living” in an apartment with meals in a common dining room at a total fee of 35,000 baht a month, and “nursing rooms” with round-the-clock care at 45,000. Full hospital care is a hundred meters away. Dok Kaew Gardens is breaking ground now for independent living facilities. You can find more about this by searching the Internet for Dok Kaew Gardens.
Another facility my friend investigated is Care Resort Chiang Mai in Mae Rim. It has more of a hotel or country club ambiance and is a bit more expensive. I found an attractive website called Care Resort Chiang Mai. One or two more assisted living facilities operate for Thai residents with senility issues beyond a family’s ability to cope. There is room for development in this market. I would be interested to hear about assisted living options available in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya.
The post-retirement contingency plan for the remainder of us is probably to go back overseas, especially if our home country has a comprehensive care system for which we qualify or family are waiting for us there.
Farmersville, Texas hit the world news with a threat to cover a Muslim cemetery with pigs’ blood to prevent Islamic burials there. America is set on a course of anti-Islamic posturing and potentially of violent action if the Internet and media are to be believed. Tempers are rising.
This is not, as it happens, the first time I have encountered community action against a religious cemetery. The first I heard about was in the early 90s when a community here in Chiang Mai (Hang Dong District) made national headlines by protesting a Christian cemetery in their vicinity. The cemetery had been authorized and was even being used for two or three burials. The protests threatened to grow into inter-religious violence until the Christians backed down and removed the bodies to another cemetery operated by a neighboring church not too far away. I seem to remember that the land was "rid" of its ghosts by a community rite after that and the whole matter disappeared.
But it did not end there for us personally. In about 2003 Pramote and I were scouting out land to build our house. Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae introduced us to an elder of a small church who had a piece of land for sale with a great mountain view of Doi Sutape. It was surrounded on 3 sides by rice land. But when we went to look at the plot with the elder who owned it, in the weeds I found a wooden cross with a person’s name and dates, exactly as would be used in a Christian cemetery. Pramote was horrified. That ended the negotiations rather abruptly. No need to get the price of the land down from 700,000 baht for about half a rai. Even if they had given us 700 thousand Pramote was not going back there. That's when I made the connection in my memory with the cemetery protests years earlier.
Cemeteries create strong emotional reactions.
Actually, my first personal encounter with a community's refusal to let a Christian burial proceed was in 1984 in Ban Ti, Lampoon Province. A new small church had been established in Ban Ti. A team of seminary students I led was instrumental in getting the church established on a permanent basis. Tensions were sometimes high between Christians and non-Christians in those days, leading to incidents which never amounted to anything beyond losing face and need to re--establish peace and tranquility. Some months after our seminary team stopped visiting Ban Ti the first Christian died and the head of the Christian churches in the area with extensive contacts in the Lampoon Provincial headquarters secured permission for the Christians to use part of the community cremation grounds as a cemetery, as was the case with most of the other churches around there. On the day of the actual burial, however, after the morning funeral and the lunch, when it was time for interring the body we got word that the village people were not going to allow it. That appeared to be a signal for all the ordained ministers (6 or 7 of them), church officials and carloads of out of town guests to leave for home. The only ones left were me and a couple of seminary students, plus the members of the church and the body of the late Mr. Silver. As we moved to the cremation grounds where the grave was dug in readiness, the villagers began to come from all directions. Most of them had some sharp farm tool in hand, a scythe or machete, maybe a hoe. They numbered about 400 before long. They did not make a lot of noise or fuss, but they made it clear that we were not going to put that body into that hole that day. We could go back home with it, or take it somewhere else, but it was not going into the ground there. The Christian elders (3 of them, all new Christians) turned to me, as both the only remaining clergy person and as the one who had helped them get the church going. It was up to us to decide. One of the seminary students was bright and an excellent speaker. I got him to stand up on the wagon by the casket and I fed him the ideas which he declaimed to the assembly. "Calm down. We will not bury Mr. Silver here today. Mr. Silver is not here. His spirit has gone to be with Jesus soon after he died. All we have left is his body now turning green. When Christians die they leave this world and join a great host of others in heaven. It is a wonderful promise. We are gone from our body.” As soon as we had said we would not be burying the body there the crowd settled down and a few of them sat down on the ground. “We are Christians and so our right to practice our religion is protected by the King. We have a document permitting this burial right here. Christians favor burial for the dead, but you may not know that many Christians are also cremated. Others are disposed of in other ways. So we will have a cremation today, not because we prefer it, but because we do not want to create a great problem between Christians and non-Christians in the village. Christians and Buddhists are going to have to live together in peace and friendship here in Ban Ti as they do in San Kap Tong (next town over) and in Chiang Mai. We will cremate Mr. Silver's body, but we have prepared to bury it. So we will wait here while you gather enough wood for the cremation. Go quickly and bring back wood." It only took half an hour. The honor of lighting the fire fell to me. We skipped the fire crackers.
A month ago one of the elders from Ban Ti and the student who had been with me that day joined several others here at our house for a ceremony and dinner. They remembered the cremation of Mr. Silver as clearly as I did. Really, being confronted by 400 determined farmers with sharp implements is hard to forget.
Families living internationally have to deal with leaving and arriving. It is part of life but it doesn’t become any easier simply because it is done more often and from farther away. Rather than ruminating on the realities of the agony of leaving being offset by the relief of arriving and other platitudes I will just tell about what’s happening in our family this week.
This week it’s our turn to say, “Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you” to borrow a poignant phrase from our favorite musical. Since 1993 daughter Julie McRady and son-in-law Andrew have been here in Chiang Mai. Julie spent part of her childhood here attending Chiang Mai International School. When she left Thailand in 1985 she said she’d be back to teach at CMIS, and everybody said, “Sure, sure.” But she did as she had planned after graduating in elementary education from Berea College in Kentucky. She convinced Andrew to come as well. For Julie it was like coming back, but for Andrew it was a steeper acculturation curve. Julie quickly settled into teaching primary grades at CMIS while Andrew tried his hand at teaching English at Prince Royal’s College across the street, and then switched to the English Department at Payap University. After a couple of years Andrew joined a small group trying to improve and save Nakornpayap International School. NIS was purchased on the edge of bankruptcy and moved to a new campus where Andrew honed administrative skills, taught Social studies, and gained a Master’s Degree from a university in Australia. About 4 years ago the time came for Andrew to join Julie and their two children at CMIS. Their daughter, Siree, was born here in Chiang Mai 16 years ago as of next August 13 and Aran followed on June 7, 12 years ago. They are bi-cultural. They are international.
They are moving to Bell Buckle, Tennessee, a whistle-stop on the railroad made famous by the “Chattanooga Choo-choo”, but more importantly as home of Webb School, one of the best private schools in Tennessee. Andrew graduated from Webb. The McRady family owns a house in town into which Andrew and family will be moving next week. Andrew has accepted a position at Webb as Dean of Students. Siree and Aran will be Webb students. Julie will be a housekeeper for a while and also continuing a long drawn-out process to discover what is really wrong with her digestive system. Hopefully medical experts in Tennessee will be able to do what ones here in Chiang Mai have not done. So there is a shadow of uncertainly over the future as they leave.
One area of concern is how Siree and Aran will adjust to being in America, in Tennessee, in Bell Buckle. They have been international all this while, all their lives. They have been neither Thai nor quite American. They look and sound like American kids, but that will be deceiving. They will find they do not think and react like American kids. Julie knows that very well, having dealt with it in 1985 and for a long time after that. “First world” kids with first world worries will seem so strange. The wider world will seem more like home than Tennessee and that will strike people as strange and maybe even suspicious. But there are people there to make the landing as soft as possible. Their 2 grandmothers will both be right there along with extended family. And Webb is as multi-cultural as a private school in Tennessee can be. Culture shock for people returning from abroad is as inevitable as jet-lag and dietary-distress (known by other less appealing names) are for new travelers. But, well, maybe it won’t be too bad.
This month has been disruptive. A lifestyle has been interrupted for this family. The last few days have been the climax. Movers and packers emptied the house. The 2 husky puppies were sent to new homes yesterday morning amid tears and a gentle rain. Now there is waiting for the long flights on Thursday.
PERSPECTIVE OF AN AMERICAN ABROAD
It is hard, at this distance, to understand how much fuss is being kicked up about the South Carolina government deciding to take down the Confederate battle flags from their government buildings. I could see how the Southerners would be out of whack if it was outsiders (especially from the North) ordering them to do this, but they are deciding this all by themselves and not being forced by anybody. In the end this is getting more conservative non-Southerners' knickers in a knot than I'd expected. I mean people from Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Missouri, Kansas. What the hell? On the positive side, this is forcing a lot of people to re-think racism. It is about racism. As W.E.B. DuBois remarked 112 years ago, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
America is racist.
Few White people in America can see it any more than fish can understand the water they are immersed in. Or us, air.
But racism in America is not the same as racism elsewhere. Racism and xenophobia are pretty nearly everywhere. But they are not the same everywhere. In the USA I have heard many times that I, as a white man, cannot understand racism. I have not been subjected to the aftermath of slavery and forced to live as a despised or feared minority.
What is indisputably true is that I cannot fully understand American racism from a Black-American's point of view. I am only partially able to perceive, with a lot of help, how I am a beneficiary of advantages from my birth as a white, male, Christian, American. Statistics show that as a White American I will live longer, be less likely to be accused of having broken the law, have access to better public education, be given preference in job searches, and more likely to find housing and secure financing. Now, as an American in Thailand I have benefitted simply by speaking English, and have turned that into a profession. I get an easier ride in a lot of ways.
What is missing from this discussion is recognition of other forms of racism and privilege. Like Jon Snow (“Game of Thrones”) who “knew nothing” of the “wildlings” living north of the wall, I know little about what it means to be Black living south of the Mason-Dixon line. But I know more than I used to about racism outside the USA. I live as a representative of two minorities here in Chiang Mai. I am a Caucasian, called a "farang" meaning a white foreigner. It is not an entirely derogatory term. It is more benign than “foreign dogs” which the Chinese used to call Caucasians. Those were fighting words. "Farang" is less hateful than that, but still loaded with negative implications and expectations about how I will never be able to do this or to understand that or to appreciate something else. I will always be an outsider. I will be an "other" and that's that. Nothing I can ever do will overcome that. And I am an identifiable, open and defiant gay-bisexual (well on the gay side of the column). That is minority status #2. So I reject the charge that I am simply too well off and too stupid to know what it means to be discriminated against, deprived of opportunities others have without question, and suspected of weaknesses or agendas I do not have.
As a result of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina I have been trying to learn more about what empowers the levels of anger and violence we have seen and how it is connected to the Confederate battle flag. To an extent it is an American phenomenon going back to the Civil War which began when 13 states declared independence from the USA and formed a Confederacy, intending to be a separate country (although the roots go back farther and involve the culture of violence that Europeans brought to North America (go ahead and remember the Aztecs if you insist their culture was the same as the Celts and Spanish)).
The Confederacy was a rebellion against the Federal government, but that rebellion was about race. The war of 1861-65 was about eliminating slavery which was a great blow to the way the Southern elite made and kept wealth, agricultural wealth being the great preponderance of it. Then the aftermath of the war was mishandled by the incompetent governments of Andrew Johnson and U.S. Grant. Soon the white South generated a new understanding about a grand southern heritage that was re-emerging from the ashes. This evolved into a whole narrative about the indomitable Southern character, and that was portrayed romantically in "Gone with the Wind" which cast it in celluloid stone in the American mind.
In the South a narrative was perpetuated which described the Confederate defeat as the inevitable outcome of gallant, moral and chivalrous Southern military forces being overwhelmed by ruthless Northern armies who committed savage atrocities to win, aided by industrial capacity the South did not have. The war was called a “Lost Cause” because of the abandonment of humanitarian principles by Grant and other generals such as Sherman whose “march to the sea” left starvation and impoverishment in its wake. The war had been a legitimate attempt to preserve the right of states to decide issues without Federal overrule. The war had been totally misrepresented in the North as about preserving slavery. Still, the Lost Cause was not entirely lost, because the dignity of the Southern people and their way of life were finally vindicated. In these latter days that noble heritage must sometimes be defended, lest the “Cause” be truly lost.
It is currently argued that “Lost Cause” believers are wrong on two significant points. First, the war was about the right of states and then of the Confederacy to retain slaves. As historian William C Davies pointed out, before separation the argument was couched in terms of states’ rights, that the US Federal government did not have the right to prevent states from holding slaves, but as soon as the Confederacy came into being Confederate constitutional lawyers were insisting that the states in the Confederacy had no power to interfere with the federal government of the Confederacy’s protection of slavery. So the issue was not about states’ rights after all, except when it was convenient. At the time that flags for the Confederacy were being designed, William Thompson, the creator of the very flag that is the subject of controversy in South Carolina, explained the meaning of the flag this way:
As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause…. Such a flag…would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as the white mans flag.]… As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.
Second, the status of slaves was being grossly misrepresented by Lost Cause advocates who portrayed them as passive beneficiaries of a well ordered and benign patronage on stately southern plantations where the slaves were happy and loyal to their white families. Furthermore, when slavery ended, the circumstances of these emancipated slaves deteriorated and many chose to remain right where they had been rather than live in poverty and anarchy.
Meanwhile, a new narrative also grew about the Black threat to all this grand Southern character portrayed by the “Lost Cause” myth. A second Southern army was envisioned to protect Southern heritage and especially the character of Southern ladies and girls. This vigilante force was organized in several forms, the most famous and violent being the KKK. It did not stay in the South, of course. The idea migrated North along with the exodus of Black laborers into Northern industrial centers. As industry expanded beyond New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cincinnati and developed in Granite City and East St. Louis, in Peoria and Dubuque and Milwaukee, and as Black laborers and families moved in, a myth of threat filled in the blank spaces between industrial centers. Slowly the idea developed that this was all part of the same thing; somehow what the white supremacists were trying to protect and preserve in the south needed protecting and preserving elsewhere like Chenoa, Flannagan and Fairbury (central Illinois farm towns outside industrialized centers). So Confederate ideology moved into the North where it lacked the glow of a fictionalized romantic heritage but retained the notion that people of color were dangerous and apt to revert to savagery unless they were terrorized and ghettoized.
Of course, that is why this decision by South Carolina to retire flags associated with what is actually racism is viewed with such anger and fear in places far away. It is seen as an undermining of white status as the median color of Americans grows darker. That's really what this is all about. The rest is smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of threats to basic freedoms of expression and the right to "bear arms" and so forth.
Led by the courageous governor of South Carolina, Her Excellency Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley, the state legislature decided to remove flags referring to the Confederacy and signifying white supremacy from state buildings. This was followed by a discussion about moving other monuments as well. Descendants of Southern soldiers killed in the Civil War have objected that this dishonors their sacrifice to a noble cause (Southern independence and the Southern way of life). Proponents of the idea of moving the monuments away from civic centers into cemeteries or parks make the point that there are ways of honoring one’s ancestors without exalting ideologies that are despicable.
That triggered a thought closer to where we live here in Asia. From time to time Japanese officials, including newly elected Prime Ministers, make pilgrimages to ancestral shrines, including those dedicated to the memories of hundreds of thousands who died in WW 2, including some convicted and executed war criminals. They are all memorialized in the shrine indiscriminately, as tends to happen in cemeteries. These trips to ancestral shrines are accompanied by Shinto rites, Shinto being the Japanese religious form of ancestor veneration; but Shinto was the religion of Japanese nationalism that encouraged and validated expansionism and war. Whenever one of these events happens it is very predictable that Chinese will be enraged and Koreans will protest. Their view is that implicit in this veneration of ancestors is a glossing over of the un-repented crimes of the past, which perpetuates the connection those in the present have with those crimes and ideologies from the past. Until that past is repented and the connection ritually and emotionally severed it is being preserved. Thus the constant insistence that this generation has to confess its guilt for the evil of the past. Japanese prime ministers have tried to avoid doing that. It is insinuated that it would be political suicide to humble the entire nation for the crimes of a few (even if that few was a fairly large number -- it was never the vast majority of the noble Japanese people, and certainly not how Japanese people feel today). Culturally hardly any of the modern generation has any sense of connection with the nationalistic fervor and events beginning a hundred years ago, nor is that era held up for adulation as some golden age. It is considered neither with awe nor shame. It is not considered at all. When outsiders (from China or Korea, primarily) raise the cry for some show of official repentance and remorse the response from across Japan is "we were not the ones who did any of those things." It is all exacerbated when, as occasionally happens, someone comes up with some doubt that the atrocity ever took place or was as widespread as is being claimed. The "Rape of Nanking" was exaggerated. The recruitment of "comfort women" was never enslavement. Such revisions of memory are met with outrage that prolongs the cries for repentance. Once in a while we also hear someone hint that an official acknowledgement would result in demands for huge compensation, even at this late date. That, too, is used as an excuse for hesitating to issue any official acknowledgement of national guilt about the past. So the Japanese tend to try to find a way to appear to repent without actually confessing, and it is never thought to be enough. Maybe it is not enough. Japanese history books downplay mention of atrocities and aggression in discussing 1930 to 1945. History books should tell the unvarnished truth. Denial seems to be going on to scab over the past rather than to bring deep healing.
Meanwhile, other demands are similar. The German government is reticent to acknowledge any connection with the Nazi regime of the past. The American government is ambiguous about the reality of their treatment of Native Americans. The Canadian prime minister was heavily criticized and ridiculed in some quarters not long ago for publicly confessing Canada’s role in suppression and exploitation of indigenous populations. Australia has not really ... New Zealand fails to acknowledge ... Belgium rebels against calling events in the Congo genocide ... Turkey is enraged when their genocide of the Armenians is remembered. And so on.
In the tsunami of controversy about what South Carolina and “liberals” are doing with the “sacred symbols of the proud heritage of the South” (aka, the Lost Cause) it has been mentioned that one never sees Nazi flags in Germany today. Only in America is treason and rebellion considered a noble part of the past, complete though it may have been with lynching, murder, intimidation, burning of churches, vigilante terrorism and much more that continues to this very hour.
Yes, it is clear that neither Germany as a country nor almost any group in Germany (almost nobody, but there are a few) waves the swastika and reveres the Third Reich, nor tries to imply that Germany was really the rightful victor after all. (That, in fact, is how Hitler and the Nazis re-narrated the outcome of World War I, to "restore" Germany's pride). But Germany does not have a culture of ancestor veneration. Holocaust rememberers express disgust and anger at the idea of Nazis still being acknowledged on tombstones in some cemeteries, but deep down everyone realizes these tombstones hardly ever energize real power for resurrecting German anti-Semitism and nationalism. Resurgent neo-Nazi groups remain tiny and are getting nowhere. They can mostly just be ignored. But the lesson from the Weimar Republic is that it is really dangerous to ignore culture-wide denial of past aggression and barbarity when it is combined with a sense of having been grievously treated. The notion that "we were victims but have arisen to reclaim our noble heritage" is fraught with ominous potential.
However, it is not true that the swastika is entirely relegated to museums. They show up quite unexpectedly here and there. Just a few months ago there was outrage here in Thailand over the fact that a teenager was seen using a Nazi trooper helmet with swastika as a motorcycle helmet and a T-shirt dealer was selling shirts with swastikas (the Nazi kind rather than the Hindu kind) at about the same time as some students in a Christian school right here in Chiang Mai were pictured on the Internet creating a poster that seemed to include positive regard for Adolf Hitler. It is very unlikely any of these kids knew about the symbolism of what they were showing, but no less than the Israeli ambassador got in the news demanding that this sort of thing be stopped because it is offensive. It is not unrelated that the leader of present military government has also mentioned Nazi Germany as an example of how a "strong hand" sometimes is effective in restoring national values.
Does all this have any relationship to the Lost Cause ideology being debated today, beginning with South Carolina? I think it does. You be the judge if anything I have said rings a bell.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.