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.
Pat Vine died a couple of days ago. Her funeral service will be Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois. I am writing this so her lifelong partner, Betsy Simms, will know how Pat was respected and how Pat-and-Betsy will always be a linked phrase describing an important unit in my life and the lives of many. At the same time they fastidiously referred to themselves in an un-hyphenated way as Pat Vine and Betsy Simms, inferring, I think, a level of care and concern for being considered as different persons. Anyone who has had more than five minutes contact with Pat and Betsy knows they are two independent women, but inseparable in my mind for all that.
Pat was the daughter and only child of Agnes and Ben Vine. They lived on Twelfth Street in Alton in a historic house they carefully maintained. By this we know that the Vines had respect for history and traditions although Pat's life was not strictly traditional. That, I think, is important to understand. Alton was once grander than anyone remembers. It was mentioned in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” as the city with the most millionaires in the country at the time. Major industries belched smoke and emitted glass milk bottles, cardboard boxes, leather, electricity, petroleum and chemicals, and steel. Alton receded and was absorbed into “Greater Saint Louis” and the industrial strip rusted down. The town did its best to retain its architectural heritage, and the Vines helped. Several stately houses owe their survival to Vine funding. For years after Ben died Agnes persisted in this.
Meanwhile, Pat departed from Alton to become educated and independent in my home town at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois where she met Betsy Sims. As far as I know they never lived separately after that. They became teachers, under the tutelage of Vic Shepherd, a family friend of ours. I think their time in Mac must have overlapped with that of Carolyn Ryberg Kingshill, a music graduate and fellow missionary in Thailand. “Small world” coincidences abound. Pat and Betsy spent their careers as high school teachers in Chicago’s western suburbs, a three or four hour GM&O train ride from Alton. In Lombard and La Grange Pat and Betsy were colleagues with my closest cousin, Pat York Alstrin and her husband Jim. I connected with them in 1987 when I became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton. That’s when I met Pat-and-Betsy, as well as the indomitable Agnes. For a year I was only aware that Pat-and-Betsy came and went. But after a fire destroyed our historic church building Agnes and her daughters emerged as specific personalities and generous donors to the rebuilding project, filling in with big gifts for a new furnace and elevator, not covered by insurance. As Agnes’ health issues began to multiply my association with Agnes, Pat-and-Betsy became closer and more frequent. As Agnes put it, “Gravity is getting the best of me”. Gravity won. The historic house on 12th street was sold and Pat and Betsy build a house just a short walk down Godfrey Road from our house, from which we were departing to move back to Thailand.
For several years Pat-and-Betsy provided annual donations for charity work outside the budget that I undertook as a missionary. I know I was not alone as a grateful recipient. I repeat here, this was immensely important on several levels because it was strategic and timely. But I am grateful for much more than funds. Pat-and-Betsy were responsive when Pramote and I embarked on a lifetime partnership and encountered anti-gay turbulence that might have sunk our little ship. They were among the first to affirm us. A few years later Pat-and-Betsy drove their cumbersome mobile cabin from Eagle River, Wisconsin to Indianola, Iowa to celebrate our marriage, becoming two-thirds of the out of town guests. I think of Pat-and-Betsy gratefully and fondly as “there for us” when it mattered. In 2012 they invited Pramote and me to have supper in their snug house in Godfrey. We laughed and ate and parted one last time with hugs. (Pat is on the left in the picture above).
On July 22 I would love to be “there for them” when it matters. It pains me that this is not possible. I will have to leave it to others to hug Betsy and smother her in support as best they can. I will cherish the memory of our last supper together.
Thai style flower arranging was the subject of a workshop last week in our village, conducted by the Continuing Education Department of the regional office of the Ministry of Education. Each night for a week, Kru Prajorn came and sat on the floor of the village hall surrounded by enthusiastic folks who were improving their skills in cutting, folding, pinning, and assembling leaves and blossoms into configurations the flowers would never have gotten into on their own. [There is a certain arrogance involved in trying to do better than Mother Nature. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to my eye the products each evening were lovely.]
As an uninitiated outside observer it seems to me that the basic theory of Thai flower arrangements is that the flowers should be much closer together and more portable than in nature. Some classical arrangements like puang malai พวงมาลัย , malai pra-korn มาลัยพระกรand bai sri (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/calling-for-kwan) are complicated traditional assemblies of dissected and folded petals and buds attached to intricately plaited leaves. There are also traditional and modern ways of arranging flowers for funerals, ordinations, table decorations, over doorways on special occasions, and even as head-dresses. No graduation ceremony or hotel wedding would be complete without the stage being laden with floral ropes and cascades.
Thailand sells trainloads of flowers every day. Flowers are an important cash crop.
In our village almost every house, no matter how small and modest, has some flowers and flowering bushes growing. Some, like jasmine and gardenias, are known for their aroma; others, like orchids and countless strains of daisies, for their color and durability. Then, too, some flowers are chosen for their auspicious names, most often hinting at prosperity and good fortune. Whereas, others with inauspicious names are avoided or viewed with alarm if they should show up on their own. Flower fanciers can tell you the inherent significance of many flowers, this one assuming an attitude of humility, that one inspiring courage, another displaying perseverance.
The purpose of the workshop was supposedly to teach basic techniques for students to save money by producing their own arrangements rather than buying them. This fits in the “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy” introduced a couple of decades ago by HM the King. The idea is that people can sustain and improve their quality of life without a lot of expense. Consistent with that, Kru Prajorn used home-grown plants and flowers as well as a few vegetables and recycled plastic bottles. Although the workshop was announced as an income-supplement possibility, it was too short to develop a marketable level of products. Instead, it served a much more current purpose, introducing a leisure time activity.
We live in a transitional era in village culture. People have more money to spend and more free time than their ancestors ever had; but time is the most valuable thing in the unfolding era. We may say that money was not valuable in the era of self-sufficiency now past, because village people did not have any. At that time flowers were symbols, often with supernatural significance. In the era now passing, money is very valuable, carefully acquired and carefully spent with few luxuries. For village people in this era, flowers imitate ostentation rather than indicating actual wealth. In the era beginning now, people know the difference between expensive flowers and inexpensive ones. What flowers are beginning to signify now is social status. Cultivation of flowers is a status statement. (Of course, a basic motive for growing flowers is personal satisfaction.) The thing of most value in the lives of people of the younger two generations is leisure. People today willingly sacrifice money to buy conveniences that shorten time spent on necessary chores like food preparation, so they can have more leisure time. Indeed, some now have enough free time that they can spend it learning flower arrangement – or writing essays on village life.
On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States announced its 5 to 4 vote decision that all states must allow same-sex couples to get married on the same basis and with the same rights as heterosexual couples. In the USA the legal battle about this is over. It seems clear in retrospect that the court moved slowly and lower courts generated scores of decisions leading up to this, which also had the effect of increasing public awareness and agreement. This was on purpose. It was no lightning bolt out of a cloudless blue sky. The only legal recourse for opponents of marriage equality is to get the US Constitution amended to specifically designate marriage as the exclusive right of heterosexual couples. Apart from legal measures, opponents might resort to dramatic protests or even foment civil disobedience, or try to twist this decision to political advantage. Those measures will not stop same-sex marriages because the majority of US citizens and a very much larger majority of younger citizens who are of “marriage and family-raising” age support marriage equality. The political tide has turned and politicians will notice the diminishing prospects of opposing marriage equality. A constitutional convention to amend the constitution will not happen either, for the same reasons.
In any case, the Supreme Court decision is worth celebrating. It is remarkable and laudable. It signifies that LGBT couples have equal status under the law in the USA, and is a signal that all gender minorities should have that status. It is a major event that has been noticed by hopeful and homophobic people alike around the world. It is inspirational. But gay kids are still mistreated and victimized. Equal treatment of unmarried gay people is far from widespread achievement.
Two other issues are more lingering and perplexing. One is religious opposition and the other is civil disorder. Religious institutions have been moving slower than American society as a whole to embrace marriage equality and to advocate human equality recognition for LGBTIQ people. The anti-marriage-equality rhetoric following the Supreme Court decision has been overwhelmingly religious in tone and terminology no matter whether the pronouncements were from religious leaders or politicians.
An alliance has developed between religious conservative groups and political conservatives. Since “conservative” is a vague term I will define it this way: “conservatives are opposed to change”. They are selectively conservative. They identify particular issues that they oppose. Then they undertake strategies to limit the effects of changes on those issues and to achieve agreements for mutual support from groups working toward parallel goals. The alliances involve cooperation and compromise. Religious conservatives opposed to abortions (because they have become convinced abortions kill “babies” who “exist from the moment of conception”) have allied with other religious groups with which they would otherwise not be apt to cooperate, which oppose birth control as interference in the natural process of reproduction. In time they share one another’s terminology. This alliance then forms a tacit affiliation with those who see a threat to civil freedom as any restrictions are put on, say, the ownership and use of guns, which courts an alliance with free-market advocates opposed to labor unions, financial regulation, taxation and other such measures that restrict entrepreneurial freedom and threaten profits. Some of the alliances create unlikely bed fellows, and specific targets can be absurd and unpredicted. Overall, however, religious ultra-conservatives are declining as the Millennial Generation comes of age and replaces recalcitrant obstructionists.
Meanwhile, anger is a danger. As every counselor knows anger is a mask of fear of loss. During the past few decades rage and outrage have been on the rise in America. Some see it having come to a boil during the terms of office of President Obama. Others trace it back to 9-11 which was a pivotal event in the complex “oil and Israel” struggles. Others attribute this anger to lingering effects of deceptions by the government over the conduct of the Vietnam War. Or to the US Civil War and reconstruction. Whatever the etiology, the present levels of anger could lead to major unrest if these armed and dangerous groups should find a cause and a charismatic leader that unites them. A few months ago it looked like immigrant rights might inflame the mob. Since all demographic projections predict a steady rise in non-Caucasians in the USA, with Mexicans in the lead, immigrant rights is unlikely to fade. Racism is another ongoing threat to justice and harmony. Since the entire American justice and law apparatus is biased against (and afraid of) people of color, this too could erupt into widespread violence as it has in the past, creating hysterical polarities. There is a strain of anarchy in America that simply opposes being regulated and controlled – or ruthlessly utilized and expended. Rebellion is ever incipient in America.
It seemed as if LGBT causes might coalesce the radical right wing leading to some configuration of issues that breaks down into formation of armed militia and the secessation of Texas (with Louisiana and Alaska?) from the USA. Nothing is too ridiculous to imagine. If 10,000 Christian pastors did decide on a mass self-immolation or martyrdom (as Glenn Beck has promised) all bets about the future of the USA might then be off.
However, all in all, I predict that the marriage equality struggle in the USA will turn out to be diversionary, temporarily diverting attention from more basic unresolved issues. [Which, of course, would leave LGBTIQ issues unresolved.] Consider this, the nation was built of immigrant groups, one after another, using the technology of effective ships to overcome the barrier of the wide oceans, to migrate and bully their way into sustainable residence, as migrating groups have always done since the dawn of the human race. New technologies always have facilitated these movements, but older techniques (like just walking in) are never completely ruled out. In the end power changes hands. Privileges brought by power are passed on to others. Those “in” are nudged aside. They don’t like it.
Insofar as marriage equality is concerned, it is a symbol that masculine Caucasians and their cultural formulations, having lost their empires in the last century, are now losing dominance even at home. That frightens them.
Electricity came to the town of Prao in 1982. Prao is 100 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai City alone had 24-hour electrical service in Chiang Mai Province in 1962. Most hill villages had just gotten electricity by 2002 and the grid was in place by then.
It was interesting in Prao that year, 1982. In the town there was a small electricity plant that ran on diesel fuel brought in barrels by truck. The electricity was on from dusk to about 10 p.m. High voltage lines were coming over the mountains to Prao that year. There were concrete electricity poles along the roadways to the nearby villages. Some buildings and homes in those villages had fans and fluorescent lights installed in readiness. Some homes had TVs that ran on car batteries, but the overall sense was anticipation. The era of electricity had not fully gotten to Prao by mid-year 1982, but it was there by Christmas.
So what did people do before electricity?
Illumination was the main need. Village life may thrive from sunup to sundown, but some people are up earlier and others go to bed later. Commerce and money were functional in the pre-electrification era, the “passing” era. During that time people used candles, coal-oil (kerosene) lamps and pressurized gas lamps. Flashlights were available but not cost-efficient for extended use. Those with special need and resources bought or rented gasoline powered electricity generators but they were noisy and expensive. In Prao every village home had a few kerosene lamps. The cheapest were made out of condensed milk cans with a metal tube soldered on to hold a wick (see the picture above). A better model was a lantern with a wide wick and glass globe. Candles made of paraffin were cheap and ubiquitous. But people went to bed before it got late.
As for everything else that ran on electricity, village life did without most of that. Meat was butchered, sold fresh and consumed that day. Ice was available, brought from the city, a 3-hour trip (so you can guess how often village people had ice). Nigh-time village entertainment was sporadic, but very well attended because of its infrequency. As I remember, in Prao it consisted of likay folk drama productions by traveling troupes, Thai boxing matches, ram wong dances, and movies sponsored by soap companies. These were often part of a temple fair or fundraising/merit-making event. A funeral also necessitated accommodating a crowd at night. Pressurized gas lamps, called jao pa-yu (literally “storm lords”) provided light, and battery powered sound amplification set-ups helped the evening sermon be heard, although those who wanted to hear joined the inner crowd, while those on the outskirts gambled or fixed the refreshments that ended the evening. Jao pa-yu were almost always group purchases since they cost as much as a month’s salary in those days.
The “passing era” of gas lamps, candles, and ice is mostly over now, and it’s as far back as most people can remember. But there was a time, completely “past”, when coal oil and metal lamps were not available. What did people use in those earlier times? According to the old people I asked, their grandparents made do with candles and bonfires. Kitchen areas had an open fire place where family gravitated. People carried little candles when they had to move around, and they took full advantage of natural light from the moon. Pine faggots also helped people see along dark pathways on the rare occasions they needed to go anywhere late at night.
In this “present” time of full electrification I cannot accurately count the things in our house alone that run on electricity, although if the power goes out we turn on an emergency power supply to run the aerator pump for the fish tank, and we still have candles ready, along with flashlights.
Did the coming of electricity make a major change in village culture? Yes and no. Yes, the era of rural electrification brought convenience, leisure time and extended possibilities. Yes, electricity became an instant necessity, requiring steady payments of money. Yes, electricity was an entire lifestyle package, including refrigerators, water pumps, home entertainment, and more. All this was more expensive that normal farm profits provided. Somebody had to work for a salary or the household lagged behind the neighbors. Social gaps widened. The village exodus began. So, yes electricity changed village culture. But the change was slow and incremental. As the profile of Prao in 1982 indicates, some electricity came years earlier than full electrification. People knew what to expect and actively worked for it. Early electricity bills were not onerous, roughly the same cost as petrol for a motorcycle per month. It did not seem as if life changed much. It just became easier.
In 2009 Rev. Steve Parelli and his spouse Jose Ortiz (pictured above) visited us in Chiang Mai and began a low-key work of building bridges and opening doors for LGBT people in Christian churches in Thailand. Steve and Jose are officers of Other Sheep (see:www.othersheep.org), an organization dedicated to networking and communication between LGBT Christians around the world. On their annual summer trips they encourage local initiatives to repair the damage done by fearful and hateful Christians, and sometimes to reduce the danger vulnerable gay, lesbian and transgender people endure.
This July-August they are coming back to Thailand. They would like to visit Christian LGBT advocates when they are in Bangkok. They are conducting a get-together on July 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Amari Don Muang Airport Hotel right across from the Don Muang Airport in the Bangkok area. They will be back in Bangkok and eager to meet folks from August 23 to 29. Contact Steve email@example.com or through Facebook under the name of Stephen Parelli.
When they are in Chiang Mai, three of us, the Rev. Sanan Wutti, Fr. Iain Baxter and I, are arranging a meeting on Friday, August 14 from9 to noon at the AIDS Ministry Office on Rattanakosin Road (Old Doi Saket Road) across from the front gate of the McGilvary College of Divinity of Payap University. We will hear about the challenging work of Other Sheep and we will discuss the question, “Is It Time Yet?” to help Thai churches open their ministries to people of diverse genders. We will decide if it is the right time to provide a book in Thai, call for a conference, look for “more light” congregations, and decide on an action plan. The meeting is open, but space is limited, so let me know if you’d like to come. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 081 764 7656.
What are the circumstances for LGBT people in Thailand? Are we “in paradise” as Steve said, somewhat euphemistically, in a Facebook posting this week? The standard answer is that we are tolerated rather than being either accepted or unremarkable. We are remarked upon, and not always kindly. It still takes courage to “come out of the closet” and churches still bar the way to leadership roles for those of us who do. There are few organizations with enough power to challenge the legal barriers to full equality and no voice being heard to argue against conservative Christian views that being gay is an invalid, sinful lifestyle choice. The situation is just as bad in Buddhism. Homophobia is a culture-wide phenomenon. But tolerance of us is better than intolerance. It is not illegal to be gay, as it is in half the other ASEAN countries. No para-religious gangs are hunting us down as they are in some of the countries Steve and Jose have visited. I can openly announce our August 14 meeting with confidence we will be unmolested. The key in this culture is families. As long as families are OK with some members being queer, communities will be quiet about it.
There are no LGBT organized churches in Thailand and only one developing “progressive” congregation that I know of, but that is progress. There have been no anti-gay demonstrations since the politically instigated one here in Chiang Mai 4 or 5 years ago, and that was the only one, ever, I believe. That’s a few meters short of paradise, but better than terror.
Nevertheless, it is a rather pathetic church that refuses to recognize that some of its sheep are missing; and the number being left out is more than one in a hundred (see Luke 15:4) … a lot more.
Pinto (ปิ่นโต) food carrier pans were once found in every house. They are made of metal with metal straps so they can be stacked and carried. They were lunch buckets to convey prepared food. They are now artifacts. Most people know what they are and remember using them, and might even be able to lay hands on a set hanging in the rafters somewhere along with other utensils that are “still good”. But they are now hardly ever used, not even for taking food to the monks in the monastery, which was probably their last regular use.
Once we have focused on pinto pans, the question is what replaced them and what did they replace? If school students no longer carry pinto pans to school nor villagers use them to bring food to relatives, how does food get transported? The short answer is “plastic bags”. Since a large percentage of the population carries at least part of their meals home nearly ready to eat each day, millions of plastic bags are used and thrown away. Tons of plastic pellets are turned into bags by an industry dedicated to making pinto pans obsolete. School students buy their lunches; cash in the pocket has replaced pinto pans for them.
One observation leads to another. Why were pinto pans abandoned? The reason is mostly the perception of convenience and cost. The pans had to be carried both ways, to and from, and kept track of in between, as well as cleaned. They were also a somewhat expensive investment; they were enameled metal, durable but costly. (The pinto set above is a ceremonial stack made of anodized aluminum to resemble embossed silver.) Plastic bags are thought of as free. Even the merchant-cook thinks of a bag as an inconsequential part of the operating cost, like gas for the stove. Costs to the environment that come from plastic production and disposal of once-used bags are at a distance. They are borne by others and factored into remote categories of accountability, or are ignored.
We could also ask what pinto pans, and particularly their obsolescence, tell us about the lifestyle of Northern Thai villagers. That would lead us into questions about changes of diet, food preparation as a vanishing social, the dominance of a money economy and its impact on human dignity, and on and on. We have not considered what came before pinto pans. Before people had money what did they use instead of pinto pans? Remembering that the purpose of the pans is to carry food when it is to be consumed away from home, village elders will tell you that they used to carry their lunches in little baskets woven just for that purpose from split bamboo. (See the example above.) That opens another area to consider. Who knew how to weave those baskets? Were there various designs? And ultimately, why and to what extent did pinto pans replace them?
In fact, rice baskets are still used to carry and temporarily store cooked sticky rice, but the baskets evoke thoughts of yesteryear. They symbolize the past even though they are still useful. Indeed, their use is expanded. They are as apt to store coins or packets of medicine or cosmetics around the house as rice. They have even been refined into handbags for women. They are marketed to tourists without reference to any particular use. One of the signs of an eclipsing aspect of culture is when its equipment is re-defined.
In the earlier era, before money and commerce, necessary items were made locally or home made. That was the case with houses made of bamboo. When money became available metal products became common. This represented a step toward specialization in which people could concentrate on work at which they were most productive of profit, and not every family had to be self-reliant for everything. That era is passing quickly as a new generation arrives which prefers to avoid activities that deprive them of personal time. Technology facilitates leisure time, and then fills it.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.