You wouldn’t have been able to find the wedding unless you asked people. It was off the road, after the road ends, to be honest. No house back there has more than four little rooms. But construction is going on in the village. It takes 3 or 4 years to get a new house finished, made of concrete blocks between concrete poles, with a poured concrete floor. Money comes slowly.
View and Wichai were getting married. The whole village attended, as they do for every wedding-house blessing. It is becoming customary here in our area for the wedding to take place at the same time as the new house blessing. At 9 a.m. a group of 5 Buddhist monks assembled to chant stanzas of scripture invoking merit upon the couple, their family, and everyone present. An elder chanted a more colloquial blessing that mentioned divinities and spirits. This is how almost every new house blessing goes. Then the monks were served lunch, and so was the crowd outside. At noon the monks left and so did most of the crowd.
Around four in the afternoon the wedding took place. It consisted of an announcer on a public address system inviting one group after another to come and tie cords around the wrists of the couple while wishing them well. Parents offered the newlyweds floral leis, and the couple pledged affection and respect to the parents in turn. That is what made them married. It was a ceremonial connecting of two clans. Actually the connection can just happen without any ceremony at all. All the people with any relationship to the two families took a turn to tie strings on the couple’s wrists. Closest family members then led the couple into their bedroom and showered them with flower petals. A grandparent might have regaled them with a few words of advice, full of double meanings. Meanwhile, the party began. The crowd came back for more food, plenty to drink, honorary messages, and scantily dressed singers filling the air with familiar tunes.
The only thing that set this wedding apart from every other wedding in villages around here is the fact that the bride is a transsexual. She was born and treated as a boy for a few years. But she has become a full-fledged woman. How she accomplished that seems to be irrelevant. We cannot be sure whether there was any surgery involved or whether the district office has changed her national identification card from M to F. What we can see clearly is that Wichai presents himself as a short, muscular, tattooed, shy, farmer who does wood carving on the side. The village reacted to this couple as they would to any couple.
This type of couple is not unheard of out here. Almost everybody can name one or two couples with a trans wife and a “real male” husband (to use the term most common). There are lesbian couples here, too. I know of several two-male marriages, but Pramote and I are the only ones with any kind of official status [we were married in the USA].
The Thai government is lagging behind village folks. Progress toward equality for persons of diverse sexuality still has a ways to go. Job discrimination is mentioned frequently. Legal right to adopt and
raise children is still a dream. View and Chai cannot have their marriage registered and get an official marriage certificate unless View’s ID card calls her female. But village people have little sense that this couple’s relationship is more unusual than several others in the village. Every relationship is different. It’s in the city where life gets confused.
Konrad Kingshill and Carolyn Ryberg Kingshill have made a lasting impact on perhaps more people than any missionary couple of modern times in Thailand. I want to take a few moments to show my
appreciation, in behalf of many.
Konrad was a refugee from Nazi Germany who fled to America via England, in order to go to college. He graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska with a triple major in math, chemistry and
physics. After a couple of years teaching in a junior college in the USA he agreed to come to Thailand in 1947, even though he did not know where it was. His job was to teach math, physics and chemistry in Christian College of Thailand, which did not yet exist – and was not permitted by the Thai government for more than a quarter of a century. In other words, Konrad was not one to be thwarted by impediments.
In the interim, so to speak, he accomplished a daunting amount: he mastered Thai language, did anthropological research on Northern Thai village life resulting in a break-through study that was the standard on the topic for 50 years, acquired a PhD from Cornell University, and married Carolyn Ryberg who was a student of music at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois – whom he chanced to meet through Dr. Ralph Robbins, a relative and fellow refugee, who taught music at Mac.
The interim continued. Konrad and Carolyn were a formidable presence wherever they lived. In Chiang Mai they helped establish a school for missionary children, recruited the daughter of the British Consul General to be the first teacher and acquired one of the historic mission residences for the school. It is now the famous Chiang Mai International School, the first such school outside of Bangkok. Meanwhile, Konrad turned The Prince Royal’s College into the premiere private school in town, and the finest school of its type in the country at the time, by helping it transform by adding a
co-educational secondary division, another national first. In Bangkok, Konrad rescued another faltering boy’s school and helped it build a new campus facility and continue as the school of choice for Bangkok elite, but with scholarship provisions for the non-elite. Bangkok Christian College is one of the best-known primary and secondary schools in the country.
Since the Thai government was still not ready to let private institutions of higher education be established, Konrad was invited to work his magic on the other 22 schools of the Protestant Church of Christ in Thailand. To do that, he was installed as head of all of them. His job was to pry them out of the grip of certain leaders, to insist on educational quality controls unequivocally, and to make sure
new leaders were made ready when their time came, and that every program was excellent. In the city of Nan, where Konrad and Carolyn lived for a while, two schools had to be merged to form a new one. I venture that if Konrad had not succeeded, not only would most of those 22 schools have closed, but another 20 Christian schools would not have been founded in the wake of their success. The Thai government sent groups to study and copy these “best practices”.
Carolyn was by no means hidden behind Konrad’s shadow. Her legacy today might be said to be the revolutionizing of the music of the CCT. It is hard to exaggerate how “undeveloped” church music was in 1950, even though hymn singing is the life-blood of Christian worship and evangelism. Everywhere she went Carolyn established choirs, gave piano lessons and made sure music was taught in schools, which fed into church music. One prominent Christian university president
credits her days singing in Carolyn’s school chorus in Nan with her conversion to Christianity – and those like her are in the hundreds –completely without aggressive evangelism that had become fashionable.
Finally, the Thai government yielded, allowing private institutions of higher education to be chartered. Konrad was recruited to assist CCT leaders in fulfilling the government’s ever-expanding requirements. It became obvious that “people in Bangkok” would have been relieved if the CCT had given up, but Konrad was not easily diverted. Whatever new challenge or delay they threw in the way, he persisted. In 1974 Payap College was granted a charter. The college had a thrown-together feel, being located on two campuses, miles apart, in facilities built for other purposes.
Carolyn became a music teacher in the Humanities Faculty, which expanded by incorporating the theological seminary’s Department of Church Music. Before long, she was head of her own Music Department and astutely recruited students as well as faculty members including missionaries and outsiders like talented, eccentric Bruce Gaston. Today the College of Music is one of Payap’s banner colleges, consistently attracting more applicants than can be accommodated. I feel that improvement of the quality of church music is one of the most remarkable changes in the Thai church in the last five decades, thanks to Carolyn and the new generation she encouraged, as well as availability of affordable keyboard instruments. For her accomplishments, her alma mater, MacMurray College, granted her an honorary Doctor of Music degree a few years ago.
As Payap grew Konrad continued to help in the expansion. A new campus was the most urgent need, but that was an immense undertaking. A breakthrough came when the college was offered 4 acres of land near the Mae Kao River, outside the city. Working with a team, other land was bought using bank loans. The second break came when Konrad was told by a US Congressman of grants being made for American Schools and Hospitals Abroad, almost all of them in Israel up to that point. The first ASHA grant covered the costs of 4 buildings and campus infrastructure; more grants followed. Konrad’s attention to details was legendary, assuring sustainability and protection for Payap. The college expanded into enrollments in the thousands with stunning new brick buildings and covered walkways.
In my opinion, Konrad’s most significant contribution to the well-being of thousands of personnel in the CCT was almost an after-thought (as it seemed at the time). He engineered a retirement
program for all CCT employees working in schools, hospitals and churches. This was a key to realistic welfare for teachers and pastors that encouraged candidates to work in these programs. Again, the government has copied Konrad’s plan.
When retirement time came, Konrad and Carolyn established residence in Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, California. Konrad said that he had to be out of easy reach if Payap was to move forward without deferring to his status as a founder and patron. He was honored with an Honorary Professorship by the Payap Board of Trustees. Carolyn moved out of Chiang Mai and away from the Music Department, but filled in a few years until her own retirement as a missionary in residence in Pahk 8, southwest of Bangkok. Konrad was honored again by having an assembly hall in the International College Building named for him. Carolyn is honored by having the main concert
room of the College of Music named the CRK Recital Hall. She said future students would be relieved not to have to remember a long name of someone they never knew.
In February 2014, Payap University invited Konrad and Carolyn to come back to participate in the 40th anniversary celebrations. [See the picture of KK and CRK on the porch of Paradonparp International House at that time] The first night back in Thailand, Konrad fell in the bathroom and never fully recovered. He died on February 28, 2017 in Pilgrim Place. Carolyn is staying in Pilgrim Place near family and many retired missionary colleagues.
Here’s a little test:
What public restroom would you advise these beauty contestants to use? [Take your time, they aren’t right here needing your advice in a hurry, although most of these questions in real-life are rather
Let’s limit this exercise to a few choices:
1. If they go as a group should they use the one labeled MEN or WOMEN or HANDICAPPED? Those are the three available.
2. Should THEY be the ones to choose or should some outside authority decide for them?
3. Does it matter whether or not violence or verbal abuse might result?
There are levels of consideration, aren’t there? But just to make this reasonable, I’ll let you know what I know about these beauties. They are competing in a transgender beauty contest. We do not know many other things about their physical anatomies, their gender orientation, or their presentation on a daily basis. We do not know their names – they use numbers for the contest. We know nothing about them except what they look like at the moment, and where they are.
We hardly ever do know more than that about people we encounter in a restroom.
Here in Thailand if a person looking like that entered a men’s restroom everyone would assume she was trans, originally a boy. If she went into a women’s restroom the assumption would also be she
belonged there. Either way there would be no fuss.
If, for instance, I wandered into a women’s restroom I would probably be gently led to one across the hall. It would be assumed I was confused, because I “present” as a male, a rather old, benign, foreigner – the type likely to be befuddled. On the whole, people use the restroom that conforms to their outward appearance. If one prefers to appear ambiguous, one gets the benefit of the doubt.
Location of the restroom might make a difference. But most schools and malls operate on the principle that you use the restroom you are dressed for. Anyhow you get to decide.
How about that?
There are four realms of discourse about faith in the United States that should be kept separate even though that is hard to do. These areas overlap, so activity may involve more than one domain. Social scientists study these practices as discrete issues, which tends to ignore simultaneous operations and blur conclusions. Theologians, religionists and students of comparative religion must be able to synthesize the whole picture, even the gestalt, which tends to become argumentative after a while. Meanwhile, most people are content to lump all their beliefs together.
The four realms are religion, civil religion, spirituality, and folk-faith.
Religion in the USA is understood to be the purview of various traditions with their structures, traditions and rituals enclosed in boundaries of their own construction. Religions have narratives that are shared widely among all adherents to the religion, which connect people to the sacred.
The purpose of a religion is to sustain and communicate a key, fundamental truth (or body of truths), the way to derive the benefits of knowing this truth, and the implications for a life modified to comport with that truth. The complex symbolisms in religions are to facilitate retention of the truth by initiates and to provide foci for communities of believers, and to help them bridge the chasm between
the mundane and the holy.
North America has been host to nearly all of the world religions as well as sub-divisions of them. Several indigenous religions emerged as well, e.g. the Mormons. It is accepted in America, following
Christian hegemony, that one cannot be a member of more than one formal religion.
Civil religion is a faith-based cluster of concepts that presume to account for the history and unique culture of the American people as a nation. This national narrative is not compiled into a fixed canon
but is reiterated as legends and truth agreed to by consensus.
American civil religion incorporates symbols (such as the flag, and the national anthem, to name but two), and patriotic shrines and landmarks where a “reverential” level of patriotism is mandated (as at
the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”). These symbols and shrines may only vaguely refer to the national narrative. National observances tend to evolve into holidays of three types: those that support the fundamental principles of American civil religion (e.g. Memorial Day and Independence Day – the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving Day), those that contradict American civil religion (e.g. Martin Luther King’s birthday), and those that become irrelevant to American civil religion (e.g. Labor Day and the Washington Monument).
In times of cultural threat civil religionists recruit formal religious leaders and transform organizations in the cause of patriotism to perform civic duties. Whenever civil religion is a dominant influence, separation of “church and state” is obscured.
Spirituality has to do with how individuals integrate the experiences and components of life in order to live effectively and optimize a sense of meaningfulness and fulfillment. Spirituality is concerned
with strategies for synthesizing insight, discovering peace, and maximizing life.
Spiritual strategies usually involve training in mind control through physical deprivation or exertion, limited sensory input to deepen concentration or sensory overload to open the mind, and/or expanded
knowledge and cognitive capacity leading to insight.
American spirituality is eclectic and optional. It often incorporates physical exercise or some dietary regimen in the name of being holistic.
Folk-faith in the USA includes a wide range of generally held beliefs and narratives about life and death, common sense, and the natural order.
It is the character of folk-faith to hold these beliefs tentatively, while deriving assurance from them. Some of these beliefs are held in spite of official opposition or scorn (e.g. that suicide is a valid
option rather than unbearable, interminable suffering), but other folk beliefs manage to acquire a measure of agreement (e.g. that when we die we will be reunited with those we loved, an assurance that will generally be reiterated by clergy at an American funeral). Folk beliefs are subject to waves of popularity.
Much mischief results from failing to recognize how these realms of faith function. Some of the trouble is deliberate. Political powers benefit from manipulating public emotions about faith issues. It
makes a difference that formal religions have a canon of scripture, but civil religion does not. That can be and has been exploited. Most of the confusion is inadvertent, although sometimes damaging.
Now that personal spirituality is indistinguishable from formal religion, the fact that spiritual development is understood to be a personal choice has undermined traditional religion’s ability to
arbitrate between persons’ inclinations and cultural values, for example.
In the end, the muddle manages to destroy the very thing faith is supposed to provide, freedom to believe. Faith systems can coexist as long as they respect each other. But confusion and belief cannot coexist.
February 16 is recalled as the founding date of Payap University. This is the date that the committee met and took action to establish an educational institution called “Payap Christian College”. When
this was proposed to the Ministry of Higher Education [now a unit of the Ministry of Education] they had us drop the word “Christian” and use the name “Payap College” for our establishment.
This year was the 43rd anniversary of our founding, to which all past presidents and retired personnel were invited to join. The university was honored to have the Treasurer of the Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand preach that day.
Going back into the past, Payap College began with the McGilvary Seminary, established in May 1889 and the McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery, founded in 1923. Payap College had its opening ceremony on June 22, 1974 and was elevated to university status in 1984. It is the first private university in Thailand, and has three campuses: Kaeonawarat Campus (home of the seminary, faculty of nursing, and college of music), Mae Kao Campus (the main campus), and
Crystal Springs Campus (not used at present).
Payap University was established by the Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand in 1974 to manifest God’s love, faith, humanity’s reverence for God, and human-kind’s mutual support. This is expressed in the motto, “Truth and Service”. We strive for academic excellence and morality leading to understanding, shining forth in the truth of life and enhancement of good attitudes in service to society.
38,118 students have graduated from Payap in the past 43 years.
[These paragraphs are from two documents prepared in time for the anniversary.]
A consensus seems to be developing among analysts that one of the triggers for the conservative-reactionary backlash going on in the USA and Europe is fear that is generated by the inability to adjust to rapid cultural change. Things are changing too fast for people to adjust, and of course it appears that the future will alter the centers of power away from those who now hold it and benefit from it.Trump, Brexit and the rise of ultra-right political parties are attempts to reverse the change.
Some of the issues are international in scope: migration and refugee flow is changing the “color” of traditionally light-skinned populations; LGBT emergence as a socio-political force is changing the
moderators of cultural norms; pressure from women to gain fair participation in decision-making is changing male-dominance; religious diversity following channels of migration as well as postmodernist patterns of independent thinking are changing the most visible cultural indicators (viz. churches, cathedrals and other religious institutions and even their edifices); and widespread skepticism about the role of government and the spread of globalization being beneficial is changing popular support for the way international and inter-cultural relationships operate.
As a whole these changes are so vast and vague that they cannot be grasped. They are mysterious and frightening. Fear leads to irrational reactions, which can easily be counter-productive. When
people are gripped by amorphous apprehension, small incidents can loom large, opinions become fluid and volatile, conspiracy rumors run rampant, and charismatic voices saying, “I will lead you out of this,” get attention.
Rather than re-run explanations about this and opinions about how to deal with it, I want to share reminiscences about the summer of 1969, where I first encountered my own inability to adapt to ominous change. [The pictures above are from just before I left Thailand that year.] I was certainly not alone in that, but here is my story of two incidents that shook me:
In August 1969, I arrived back in Chicago from four years in South East Asia watching governments collapse and under threat in Indonesia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia from the onslaught of Maoist Communism during the height of the horrifying Cultural Revolution. Chicago was traumatized and polarized. Mayor Richard J. “Hizzonor” Daley had used violent force to protect the Democratic National Convention (i.e. “The Establishment”) from Vietnam War protestors the year before. My own seminary in the Lincoln Park neighborhood had been “occupied” and closed down by the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang, a.k.a. “freedom movement” against “The Establishment”. Scores of gatherings and marches were held to protest US actions in SE Asia and the Vietnam War. I thought I had a small set of useful stories about how brave but afraid people were in the Philippines and Thailand, to balance the discussion, or add to it a more human perspective. I found no impartial forums or seminars on the Vietnam War. Nobody wanted to hear stories that undermined their rage, and they were raging pro and anti. I felt isolated and threatened in the city I thought of as my urban home.
It was the first experience of my life where discourse on a major issue was illegitimate.
In June 1969, just months after the Six Day War between Israel and the United Arab Republic, we stopped off to visit dear family friends in Cairo. The city was sand-bagged and preparing for an invasion from Israel, which had, in fact, made the preemptive air strikes that began the war two years earlier. We met with several people who told us stories of relatives being killed, wounded or made prisoners of war, and of horrifying incidents. Not long after that, I was invited by a Reformed Jewish Congregation in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to be on a panel discussion on the Six Days War. It was beginning to be clear that the war had tipped the balance of power and delivered huge amounts of
territory into the control of the State of Israel. Who “owned” that land depended on how legitimate the 6-Day War had been. As invited, I filled my fifteen-minute slot with stories about how devastating the
war had been to families in Egypt. I had been misinformed by the organizers of the event. There was no appetite, even among those sophisticated Jews and a few Christians, to hear from the Egyptian or
Palestinian side. “The Egyptians got what was coming to them.” At the end of the workshop I had to be escorted to my car for my own protection.
It was my second major experience of unwelcome discourse.
The summer of 1969 was a time of turbulent change and I had trouble adjusting to it.
On July 20 the USA pulled ahead of the USSR in the “Space Race”. Neil Armstrong took “one small step for mankind” from the bottom rung of the Apollo 11 moon-lander onto the moondust and then he and Buzz Aldrin collected 50 pounds of rocks. There was some doubt about who was winning the nuclear arms race, but the space race was clearer after July. Watching those grainy black and white pictures from the moon, I realized that “now things are different”. It was a whole new era and our perspective about life on earth would never be the same.
The war in Vietnam was going all wrong with the USA stepping in to defend the corrupt, dictatorial regime in Saigon for reasons that were unclear and hidden but had to do with natural resources and the Cold War to prevent Communism from taking over the world. John Foster Dulles had convinced us that SE Asia was like a string of dominos. If one fell, they all would fall. In 1969 the dominos were teetering precariously. A specter hung over hundreds of Thai colleagues, students and acquaintances that I considered dear friends. My fear for them was deep and existential.
On August 15-18 I was again shaken, unexpectedly, by a cultural earthquake. The epicenter was at Woodstock. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and a whole new wave of cultural change. It was the official end of Modernism and the beginning of Postmodernism, but that was not yet clear. At the time we thought Elvis Presley and the Beetles had brought cultural change, but they were really still on the threshold. I can say it now, Woodstock alarmed me. I no longer belonged to a unified culture.
I was no longer in a position to be a moderating agent, as I had imagined I might be when I finally settled into my role as a Presbyterian pastor of a “tall-steeple” church. Intuitively I knew, by 1970 the change was overwhelming. What does one do?
There are, briefly, four options when one is attacked or threatened. Fight, retreat, surrender, or negotiate. When I was confronted by overwhelming change, my strategy was to retreat and then negotiate. First, throughout the fall and winter of 1969 and 70 I withdrew into my cave, working on a master’s degree and lying low. Then I thought I might be able to work out a rapprochement with the cultural quake, at least. Perhaps I could be a mediating influence in specific instances between anti-war and anti-communist partisans and between the Hippy-Jesus Freaks and the traditional church. The full impact of the cultural change had not yet hit me. It took me several years to learn the lessons of the summer of 1969, that THIS cultural shift had changed the dynamics of social formation. Communication has never been the same since then. Ethnic divisions leading to tribalistic
“ethnic cleansing,” and fragmentation of cultural entities leading to crumbling borders and global neo-liberalism have developed new realities. Fighting this change is what the resurgence of conservative alt-right alliances are about. They will fail, but they may precipitate another war first.
Surrender to cultural change is the only realistic course of action, and the only one where change agents have a chance to undo the lethal trajectory of tribalism and neo-liberalism. But be warned: rational discourse will not work wonders as it used to do.
“The Iron Ladies” was a surprise box office hit in 2000 before a new round of cultural suppression began in 2002. That crack-down was ineffective insofar as its attempt was to curtail public acceptance of gay, kathoey and trans persons into occasional prominence and public acclaim. “The Iron Ladies”, directed by Yongyoot Thongkongthun, is a light-hearted comedy inspired by the nationally-known success, three years earlier, of a volley ball team from the northern city of
Lampang. The team contains a variety of queer players when the previous players dropped out rather than be coached by a woman (a “tom” they claimed [using Thai slang for a lesbian, equivalent to “dyke” as the English subtitles say]). The coach accepts two trans players and so all the boys quit except one who becomes the team captain. Bee, the coach, has to make a team out of them but the
obstacles are formidable, including: personality peculiarities, family objections, opposing teams’ ridicule, and then official obstinacy. The team coalesces, wins its way to the national championship and then seems to be blocked by the homophobic, misogynistic tournament organizers, until fans overwhelm them and the main bad guy knocks himself out, so the championship can proceed and be won by the “iron sisters”.
As Yongyoot tells the story, key players being recruited and installed into the team have to overcome impediments at home, on the court, and in their own hearts. A closeted gay male player has to come out and openly defy his family to play, while another family is giddy with joy to have their kathoey-trans child going on this adventure. The coach has to confront officials about their rules being made up as they go along – no one dreamed of men playing against a team presenting themselves as an odd form of women.
Society, as “The Iron Ladies” portrays it, is coming to terms with gender diversity, but the energy is entirely from the grassroots. The issue is where do these people fit into society and into national
culture? Apparently, it will take acts of defiance to make it happen.
In retrospect, “The Iron Ladies” is much about defiance. Yongyoot is quite willing to pander to stereotypes. He doesn’t hesitate to have a player come unhinged when she breaks a fingernail. One is reminded of flamboyant Armand in “The Birdcage”. It seems hard to find normal queers in movies of that time (1996). We are all exaggerated. In “The Iron Ladies”, before the final climactic contest, every one of the players and most of their foils has been identified as a type. There is a lack of subtlety about the obedient son, the raging homophobe, the flaming queen, the doting parents, the controlling father, and the pathetic misogynist. There is a satisfying predictability about how those who rise defiantly achieve success and those who do not wither in defeat. The volleyball teams that the ladies face seem incapable of respecting their opponents or accepting defeat gracefully. The fans, in particular, are defiant. Yongyoot clearly signals that sexual minorities have fights to wage.
The main impact “The Iron Ladies” makes is not through its blunt messages. Film critic Roger Ebert disagreed with almost everything about the film except the characterization of Bee, the coach. He felt
the film was about forty years out of date in its representation of gender diversity and especially its ludicrous stereotyping. Still, the film was the second highest grossing Thai film at the time, a record
it held for more than a decade. It spawned two sequels (which were not as good, although profitable by Thai standards). What Ebert could not know when he wrote his review, is that “The Iron Ladies” was to be barrier-breaking in Thailand and East Asia. It was a movie that showed gender diversity positively, showed public acceptance of it, disparaged official repudiation of it, and then even as the credits rolled said “these LGTK people can live happy productive lives after their volleyball victory, in life among you.” No government publication, to this day, makes those claims. Moreover, the movie and its success helped fulfill those assertions. It is a help to be a national champion or a phenomenal success if one is to gain public acceptance. But the bar is lowered as more and more of the public get acquainted with the new normal. The big story of “The Iron Ladies” is about the public perception and positive response. It began with the crowds at the tournament, but spread through the Kingdom of Thailand. These queers had fans from Chiang Rai (far north) to Trang (far south) and that had never happened before.
Arnika Fuhrmann of Cornell University puts it this way, “[the film’s] greater emphasis lies on engendering national discourses of advocacy regarding homosexuality and transidentitarian positions.” She concludes, however, that films like “The Iron Ladies” are superficial in that their “potential for radical figurations of queerness remains limited.”
Who would have believed that dropping elephant acts would spell the end of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years as “The Greatest Show on Earth”? When the announcement was made this week it momentarily rivaled political ravings on the Internet.
RBB&B claimed the circus could cease operation in May as attendance and revenue plummeted following their removal of elephants from performances. The circus without elephants couldn’t keep going. But what about elephants without circuses (and zoos), can they survive?
Elephants are big here in Thailand (I do not apologize for puns).
First, a few historical notes:
· Elephants are probably Thailand’s national animal. A white
elephant on a red background was the flag of Siam for centuries.
· National worth and prestige was measured by the size of the
herds of elephants royalty collected. An elephant round-up (i.e.
hunt) was a major cultural event in Ayutthaya from the 13th to 18th
· Chang-phuyak (commonly translated “white elephants”) were
auspicious demi-gods equivalent to royalty in status.
· Elephants were essential to the deforestation of
teak-covered mountains which was a major source of revenue for the
modernization of Thailand from approximately 1850-1950.
· Elephant attractions were prominent in the development of
Thailand as a world tourist destination from 1975-2005. Visits to
elephant parks are still essential parts of most tourism packages.
With that sketch as background, now consider elephant treatment as an animal concern in the world. When human arrogance about our place in nature began to melt in the 20th century, people started to recognize that animal feelings are authentic and legitimate. Elephants, for example, love their young, mourn their dead, resent mistreatment, and have distinct individual personalities. People living in close proximity to elephants know this. But it has taken a while to expand that line of thought to include the idea that elephants, and by extension all animals, have or ought to have rights. It may be a part of the major paradigm shift of the current era to make the adjustment away from exploitation of animals to co-existence. The movement has barely begun, but in the case of elephants there has been progress. In fact, the progress has come so late that it may be doubtful, as with pandas, that natural co-existence is any longer viable.
Two campaigns have been undertaken. The first is to end ivory trading which involves killing elephants for their tusks, which are turned into luxury items for which there is no real need and no excuse except the profit to be made from the marketing of the items. The second campaign is to naturalize captive elephants. Elephants do not actually thrive in captivity, and even domesticated elephants with comparatively large ranges have been brutalized in the process of being domesticated. Domestic elephants are coerced into doing what their human masters want them to do. In the logging industry that included pulling and rolling logs. In circuses it meant being paraded
and forced to move on command.
The problem with “naturalizing” elephants in Thailand is that most of their natural habitat is gone and free-roaming elephants invade human developments, including especially orchards, hillside plantations, and even lowland fields. There are too many elephants for free range and too little natural barriers to keep the elephants safely segregated from humans. Despite their exalted place in Thai cultural lore, the days of elephants in Thailand are numbered.
Meanwhile, elephants linger in limbo (I do not apologize for alliteration, either).
It is believed that there are perhaps 2000 wild elephants in Thailand, in national forests along the Burma border. The number is an estimate. It is comparable to the number of domesticated elephants, 95% of which are owned privately.
Most domestic elephants are in parks where they are chained or occasionally have limited space to move around under control. They are kept for shows and stunts. A staple type of elephant show here in Chiang Mai has them getting a bath and then moving logs around as they used to do, and for which they need less re-training. This ostensibly shows tourists how elephants were used in the recent past. Then the elephants give tourists a lumbering lap around the campsite or a longer lap through the woods before lunch.
Conservation parks are a newer development in which elephants are rescued. They are brought to the Elephant Conservation Center, a government project under royal patronage, in Lampang Province to receive veterinary care to recover from injuries or disease. The newer Elephant Nature Park is billed as a place where elephants are conserved naturally and where tourists interact with them responsibly. Tourists pay a hefty fee to be educated and allowed to become acquainted with elephants and pretend they are helping take care of them. Elephants in these types of parks are expected to do what comes naturally, and that does not include giving people rides, playing football, dancing, standing on their heads or painting pictures.
A significant number of elephants, usually adolescents or young adults, are privately owned outside of parks and some are constantly on the move begging for tips and treats sold by their handlers to
sympathetic folks (as was the case with the elephant who was brought to our house in the picture above). They are moved where crowds gather, in hot cities, for example. Their life expectancy is
relatively short, whereas most elephants would live to the age of 80 or 90, as would healthy human beings.
It looks like American bison and maybe timber wolves are making a come-back from near extinction. Elephants are not as endangered as Siberian tigers, but Asian elephants cannot survive if they have to coexist with humans. They cannot compete for overlapping habitat with humans. Perhaps nothing can, except maybe termites and cockroaches. Reducing the degree of enslavement elephants have endured is, in the big picture, a largely futile gesture, although it probably means a lot to the ones released from cages.
As the USA prepares to inaugurate a new and very different President and as Thailand prepares to crown a new King and elect a new government, I have been pondering what a national leader should be like. Here is my tentative description of national leaders who are worthy of respect and honor.
A WORTHY NATIONAL LEADER IS ONE WHO WORKS TO:
1. Unify the nation to include all portions of the population no matter how small or recent.
Rationale: Long-term national integrity is enhanced by rapid integration.
KPI (key performance indicator that the goal is being sought by the national leaders): Special attention is paid to rapidly diminish the disadvantages of being a recent immigrant or people at risk.
Example: HM King Rama IX of Thailand visited and supported development projects for every ethnic and regional group in the kingdom.
Counter-indicator: Particular groups are excluded or identified as undesirable.
2. Value the cultural heritage of the nation and respect the cultural contributions of all ethnic sectors.
Rationale: National pride is enhanced by valuing unique components of the national fabric.
KPI: Nationally sponsored projects and holidays signify that cultural events and heroes of minority groups are as valued as are those of the ethnic core majority.
Example: Black History Month in the USA
Counter-indicator: Only founders or the ruling elite are honored.
3. Protect those who are most vulnerable by insuring their security, health, education, essential resources and livelihoods.
Rationale: Human survival and human dignity are human rights. A nation is only as sustainable as its promotion of human rights.
KPI: progress is being made to expand equal access to legal protection and safety, health care, universal education, jobs with sufficient pay, and people’s control over their own lives.
Example: European plans for access to education and health care for all.
Counter-indicator: Health care costs for any individual could bankrupt them and their families or force them to forego needed medical care.
4. Enhance the circumstances of future generations.
Rationale: Fundamental resources must be available forever.
KPI: support is provided for visionary, valid scientific and humanitarian research and action is consistent with those discoveries.
Example: Sustainable healthy environment.
Counter-indicator: carbon emissions are ignored and/or industries that contribute to environmental destruction are allowed to continue doing so.
5. Promote world peace, human welfare, and international justice.
Rationale: The world is essentially one and people prosper when they are free from threat.
KPI: mutual regard and shared responsibility for international tribunals and inter-governmental organizations.
Example: United Nations
Counter-indicator: Actions are taken to withdraw from international forums and accountability.
6. Provide informed, enlightened leadership as a role model for others in national leadership.
Rationale: Leaders should lead.
KPI: the leaders articulate a consolidated vision for achieving the above objectives.
Example: The Prime Minister of Canada
Counter-indicator: Policies fragment society and isolate the nation from the community of nations.
New Year is traditionally a time for list-making. My lists are about living cross-culturally. I have lived in Thailand for 33 of the last 51 years. I no longer belong anywhere else. Pramote and I got married in Iowa in 2009 and built our home in a village close to his family in Chiang Mai. That is the context for my reflections this New Year’s Eve.
3 things that are persistently remarked upon:
3 things about my behavior that are hard for Thai acquaintances to accept:
3 things that I still find difficult:
OK, to be fair, what have I heard about how Americans respond to Thai persons in the USA?
I have been out of the USA for a while. Are these sorts of insults disappearing?
I have come to terms with most of these aggravations here. I cannot impact how Thai people first perceive me except by remembering to smile benignly and dress appropriately. They cannot diminish what I know and what I think, by underestimating it. At this stage in life it is time to shed regrets about what was not to be … and to dispose of books I have hoarded and clothes I have outgrown.
I’m on my way to a party down the lane where they will have ice cubes in the beer and bits of animal innards on the grill. Happy New Year, in this the best of all possible worlds.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.