Metal water kettles are going the way of water buffalo here in Northern Thailand. A case in point is what my ancestors called a “tea kettle” although only the water for tea was ever heated in it, and so was our bath water. Here they are called กา (pronounced gah as in gosh). They have stood the test of time, bridging periods from wood fires to gas. They are now aluminum, although in upscale stores in the city you can find copper kettles or stainless steel ones. A long time ago they were cast iron.
This represents improvement (whereas the evolution from cast iron to aluminum skillets might not – just an opinion). For heating water, lighter weight is easier to handle and more energy efficient.
Nowadays it is neither the source of energy nor price that is the driving factor in how we heat water, and why. For most of us, the only water we want heated at home is for coffee and for baths. There are separate ways of doing that. In Thailand, a thoroughly urban household may not have a kitchen. Most apartments and condos have minimal food preparation facilities, heavy on utilities that plug in. Coffee is made, naturally enough, in a coffee maker. Expensive varieties make your coffee while you are still asleep so it is ready when you get up. I remember being struck the first time I heard a farmer back in Illinois say he thought his computerized coffee maker was a necessity, much like his John Deere tractor. Now coffee makers are available right here in Lotus and Big-C, unless you prefer to have your cappuccino or latte from a kiosk on your way into your day. Modern young adults want their coffee with a cute diagram in the cream foam on top, or in a container to go.
Here in our village if you want coffee, you make it yourself. Although coffee out here is a modern beverage, even newer than Ovaltine and Milo, tea is ancient. There was a time in living memory when the drink you were provided in a food shop was always tea.
What was used to heat water before metal kettles of any kind were found around here?
The answer arrived at my front gate a few weeks ago. A truck driver was hawking clay pots of all kinds. Before there was money to buy metal kettles there were clay ones. Indeed, there still are. They are used in our village, if at all, mostly as decorations to harken back to the old days. The hawker had to hunt among his wares to find the example I wanted for the picture at the top of this essay. Flower pots were his main product. But clay pots without spouts are still used to make soup and curry. They are part of the secret behind the great taste of certain recipes.
So, there are three eras of กา in Thailand, the era in the past when they were made of clay, the passing era of metal kettles, and the dawning present when water heating is specialized.
What do the clay, metal, and electrified water pots tell us about village culture?
Clay pots were village made. Artisans specialized in those things and certainly not every household had a kiln; but terracotta utensils were local products. The clay around here is abundant and good quality. At a market on a fixed day those with extra items could find customers to trade what they had for what they wanted. Clay cooking ware was a necessity. Village culture in the past sustained the skills and production capacity for necessities.
The second observation is that some villages rose above the level of simple adequacy in certain trades. It often had to do with the availability of raw materials, or access to supply lines for components. Not many villages here in Chiang Mai have salt, for example. There are large salt sources in Nan Province, not too far away. Not every village needed to manufacture umbrellas, but they all needed a meat processing capability. So some necessary things were made and some for obtained by trading.
If an item was absolutely necessary for subsistence living it was produced locally. If it was optional it was traded for other optional items. That was the marketing principle of the past.
Only after commerce developed, where money became the medium of exchange and transportation was feasible did the production of necessities leave the village. Clay pots were then made by those who could do it in some way better. Those craftsmen could afford to divert their attention to full-time pottery making from other labor intensive endeavors such as hunting for game and cloth weaving.
Now at the mid-twenty-fifth century (by Thai reckoning) we are entering the post-village era.
Necessities in one era are different in another era. In post-village culture a home is a residence. It is no longer a place to manufacture food to eat. The amount of time a person spends on food production may be reduced almost to zero. Conversely, people in post-village cultures spend considerably more time and concern than previous generations did on what clothing to wear, and an even higher percentage of their attention on diversions of all kinds. Any successful housing development markets its sports and recreation facilities as well as its accessibility to places of entertainment (shopping malls being probably the most important of these). Diversions fill in where community events used to take place.
In post-village culture hot water needs to be there when it is wanted or within seconds at most.
There are hundreds of college and university students from overseas in Thailand at any one time. Some are here for a semester or more and others are here for two weeks or less. What they have in common is an opportunity to expand their horizons and begin to gain a global perspective or at least a cross-cultural one. Those who design and coordinate these programs usually facilitate a partnership between institutions in Thailand with institutions overseas. The ways these are conducted are too diverse to describe, but in general, the programs focus on (1) language, (2) culture and history, (3) and/or service-learning.
Advocates say that the service-learning model has the greatest potential for transformation of participants. Skeptics insist that it depends wholly on how much the participants are open to transformation and attitudinal modification. Students who come to party tend only to have aged a little by the time they depart. At the other end of the scale are those who “never get over” having been immersed in Thai culture. They are never the same again.
Immersion does seem to be the aspect that matters. The more students (or tourists) insulate themselves in their comfort zones, the less they absorb that is challenging. Without challenge there is no change.
A great deal of the Thai tourism industry is geared toward a form of mobile entertainment. Travelers are moved from one show to the next. They see a series of animal acts featuring snakes in one place, elephants, tigers, crocodiles or monkeys in the next. Then there are costumed dancers in the evening and static wonders to admire the next morning in the form of temples or palaces. If it goes well it is all very comfortable. Even “adventure tourism” is never meant to be all that challenging except inside a narrow range of previous interest and fitness, and then the goal is thrills rather than edification. It is essentially irrelevant that the track or trek is in Thailand, just as a Formula One race could be in Dubai as well as Monte Carlo. All this, of course, is frequently interspersed with shopping. Well, that’s what tourism is. It is only coincidentally educational.
Nowadays, there is also “augmented tourism”, tours-plus. Sometimes a tour is tacked onto the end of a conference or meeting. Sometimes the tour is the main thing, but an afternoon of helping-out is tucked into the program. You can usually tell the difference between tourism and service by who pays the bills. It strains the definition to call bathing and feeding an elephant “service”, especially if you have paid a thousand baht or more for the opportunity and you have to be helped by someone who could do it faster without you.
What turns an immersion experience into an educational one is reflection. Some sort of reflection is essential. Guided reflection is more productive than chain of consciousness recall. Disciplined reflection is optimal. An amateur sees, but doesn’t know what she sees. A trained observer sees more and configures it more accurately.
There is passive as well as active immersion. When I took a TV production class we got to observe in control rooms. We were immersed in the high-energy environment but required to be absolutely still. Students for the first time at a Buddhist ceremony should try to be passive but alert. In an authentic active immersion experience there is no difference between the way students are living and conducting affairs and the way people all around them are doing it. Reflection follows the immersion, but to derive the most benefit, experiences should be preceded by training and preparation.
Effective service-learning in Thailand is active immersion that provides assistance to somebody. In service-learning, students become colleagues in a project with those who benefit from it. A work project in which students do something for others may not be service-learning if elements of immersion or joint-participation are missing.
Effective service-learning is comprised of:
· An element of travel or movement out of one’s home environment
· A period of training and orientation
· Immersion into the environment of those to be served
· Work that benefits those being served
· Co-participation with mutual involvement by those being served
· Reflection, de-briefing and accumulating records
If any of these elements are missing the service-learning is compromised.
There are ways in which service-learning by overseas students in Thailand differs from service-learning back home. Some of the ways are matters of degree. A service-learning program in Iowa, for example, might place students in a public housing community center only a few blocks from campus or in a migrant farm worker labor union hall a few miles away, but travel to Thailand is into a far country with a comprehensively different culture. There are two ways, however, in which service-learning is fundamentally different in Thailand. Although it may be expected in New York, it is unrealistic to demand that students have a determinative role in selecting, designing and conducting their service. Not long ago a group came to our village to conduct a day of English language activities at our high school. Some of the activities were chosen for the group to conduct and part were activities participants insisted on designing themselves. Being unfamiliar with the school and educational culture of village Thailand the activities brought from overseas tended to be less successful because supplies ran out, the activity was too complicated to be accomplished in the available time, or the school students interacted mostly with each other while the service-learning students cheered or coached from the sidelines, or the service-learning leaders performed with the school kids as an audience. Student involvement in planning service-learning programs across cultural divides needs to be a collaborative effort, and if that is impossible it needs to be done for the service-learning students.
A second expectation of service-learning that is unrealistic here in Thailand is that somehow it will result in community or social change, particularly through giving community members a voice. There are insurmountable language, social, cultural and political barriers to that. Empowerment (as well as religious evangelism) is an unrealistic and illegitimate goal for foreign service-learning programs. Success can only be simulated and reports of success are inevitably exaggerated or entirely bogus. On the other hand, providing technical and emotional support for Thai change agents can be done by persons from overseas.
As service-learning earns greater and greater respect as an educational methodology and as the ASEAN accords open the door to greater mobility it is important to sharpen our thinking about service-learning by overseas students in Thailand.
Wooden houses are disappearing from villages around here. They are being replaced by an entirely different kind of construction. The reason has nothing to do with style or size, but with availability of building materials and anticipated durability.
There were two basic periods of wooden houses. The more recent dates back to the 1950s. Here in the North those houses were built of milled lumber on poles set in the ground. The floors were tongue and groove boards of uniform width and typically less than half an inch thick. Outer walls were made of lapped wood siding without an interior wall. Houses were sub-divided into small rooms. A front porch was usually only large enough to provide protection from the rain while the front door was being unlocked. Windows and doors were double panels without glass. The back area was roofed over and the floor had gaps between the planks to allow drainage. The area under the house was used for storage, and later might be converted into a gathering place in the shade. These houses had at least a modicum of furniture, some of it in the form of built-in shelves and seating.
Before the Second World War wooden houses were made largely of hand-sawed boards and hewn posts with thick plank floors. Rafters held roofs made of tile or corrugated metal with wide overhangs. (See the picture above.) More modest village homes still used leaf or thatch shingles. Interiors were traditionally wide open with no walls, although small bedrooms came into style toward the end of the era. Storage cabinets served to designate living areas as did a more-finished central floor raised one step higher. Most village homes had almost no furniture. People sat on the floor to visit and eat, and slept on the floor. Wide covered and open areas in front and back for food preparation and for social gathering were equal in size to the central living space. Sleeping mats were reeds, blankets, or mattresses, the most luxurious being filled with kapok stuffed into tubes of cotton cloth sewed together in such a manner they could be folded and piled out of the way during the day.
Nowadays, when houses have to be replaced because of termites or family requirements, instead of wood the construction material is usually concrete and steel. Modern houses are built on foundations on the ground with square upright posts of concrete reinforced with steel rods. Floors are concrete, walls are concrete blocks covered with concrete stucco. Here in Chiang Mai walls are sometimes made of bricks, which will also be stucco covered. Rafters are steel brazed in place. Roofs are made of concrete tile or panels. Wood is used for some doors and window frames, and also for decoration. Doors made of plastic are typical for bathrooms, and steel or aluminum window frames are more likely in larger construction projects. Windows have glass.
Two factors brought about this change. Timber for construction is now scarce. Forests where wood could be gathered are gone. Lumber is expensive. Wood from old houses is sold at a premium to be converted into furniture, parquet and other purposes. A family with a large, old teak house can probably sell it for the cost of building a new concrete house. The second factor in the change is the development of the cement industry in Thailand. Thailand is rich with limestone. Some of the outcroppings are spectacular. This stone is not even below ground level and it belongs to the country. As postwar construction of highways and large buildings began, the scenic value of these hills, conveniently looming in the central plains area, was deemed of secondary importance to national development. Capital for building cement factories was raised through sales of stock in which the nation’s richest families invested and became much richer. Cement industry infrastructure came next. Cement became a cost efficient building material throughout the country. On top of that, the homes were convenient and banks provided loans. All of this came just in time for the metropolitan idea to boom.
I have asked people in their 80s what their grandparents’ housing was like. What came before wooden houses? Here in Northern villages the answer is usually that the houses were made of bamboo. Even the supporting poles were bamboo, but wooden posts were sometimes available. Houses had bamboo walls or flaps that could be lowered if need be. Floors were split bamboo woven into panels. Roofs were of leaves or thatch. Construction was a cooperative project. A house normally lasted 4 or 5 years with a new roof at least once. The house was held together by rope bindings. No nails were used. Metal was not readily available in those days. Before the rail link was finished from Lampang to Chiang Mai in 1922 commerce was by barges on the Ping River or by horse caravans.
Village culture can be divided into three eras: the past that is hard to find, the passing that is becoming obsolete and vanishing, and thepresent on the way to becoming a defining characteristic of village culture. The “past” is a time before money was commonly used, before roads were more important thoroughfares than waterways, and before metal was available. Toward the end of the “past” era of village culture, houses were a combination of wood, bamboo and leaf or thatch roofs (as in the picture accompanying this essay, provided by Songkiat Thungyen of Mae Sariang).
There are several things to notice about the earliest era of house construction. Houses were considered temporary. The land on which they were erected was not necessarily owned by anybody except the princes of the city-states. Land was not owned; it was used. Money was not a factor. Houses were built cooperatively using bamboo and jungle products. They were located along waterways. To this day villages and the roads connecting them follow rivers and streams. Houses were clustered for mutual protection against wild animals. The first and only permanent structure in the village was the temple. Houses could not be secured from bandits so at least one person was home at all times. That was enough security because everybody was recognized. Tools needed to build a bamboo house might consist of only a machete. In a village like this there was no strict separation of domains. Domestic animals resided with the people, including water buffalo and chickens. Rice was likely the only crop cultivated. Vegetables were grown when conditions were right. A large proportion of greens for soups were gathered rather than grown. Meat was not a staple, but a luxury. Each day was a self-contained unit in the sense that there was hardly any long-term plan except to secure the necessities to get through the day as happily as possible.
The era of wooden houses came to people of higher status first, but as tools and machines became available nearly all people switched to wooden construction held together by nails and bolts, because those houses lasted longer and were more spacious and comfortable. By that time land ownership was possible. Having a secure right to a parcel of land made the investment of money and effort to build a wooden house feasible. In fact, owning a tract of land was probably the first thing of significant value that a village family could claim. It marked the end of peasantry.
Fires are all around us in nearly every direction and the air is so thick the sun is only a red glow long after dawn. I have found out why, and it’s not what I have long heard.
From where we live we can see hillsides on clear days and dim silhouettes of them on days like this. At night we can often see fires creating orange jagged lines on the horizon. With binoculars we can sometimes see them flare as they get to clumps of fuel.
First some facts.
No one lives on these hillsides. The fires happen every year. The hillsides are wooded. There has been no lightning. The fields below are mostly planted now or are being left for better irrigation.
These facts mean that around here “routine blame” does not apply. The semi-official explanation for hill fires is that ethnic minorities are engaging in slash-and-burn agriculture. Blaming the hill tribes doesn’t work here in our kink in the valley, nor does blaming the lowland rice farmers – right now.
Everybody here says that these fires are set deliberately to clear away the ground clutter so that the mushrooms can be seen when the first rains come again. The fires help mushroom hunters. Mushroom hunting is the last serious hunter-gatherer product in our forest area, along with bamboo shoots. The big wildlife are gone that used to be driven ahead of the fires so they could be shot. There are no more wild hogs or deer, no matter what they tell you about their meat at the “jungle produce” markets on the Lampoon-Lampang highway.
Farmers do burn off their fields. It is almost universal hereabouts. “Why?” I asked. It kills the insects, I was told. It is not about returning nutrients to the soil. It is not even very much about making plowing easier, although that is a marginal benefit for those who plow with animals … which not one farmer does in our valley. Burning reduces the need to apply insecticides. But I drove around the valley. No field was being burned. It’s not the season. Field fires are not the cause of Chiang Mai’s haze.
Chiang Mai is in a finger-shaped valley. Drive from Chiang Mai in any direction and you have to cross steep hills. The valley fills up with air-borne particulates. This season the chief cause is burning. Everybody who has space burns dried vegetation. If the trees were not trimmed and weeds not cut the jungle would reclaim the valley as it is relentlessly trying to do. There is no public program for disposing of this waste. When municipalities do run one of their rare projects for gathering branches they burn them. In effect burning is public policy. But that burning is minimal and spread throughout the year. It does not explain this level of haze.
Only deliberate forest fires explain the air pollution in Chiang Mai in March and April. Mushrooms are the reason.
Some families depend on the annual mushroom harvest to provide cash for the year. Certain kinds of mushrooms sell for more than prime beef, pound for pound. One type can go for $10 a liter. The demand for those little nuggets always exceeds the supply. I know some people who drive up from Bangkok just to have a dish of them. They are much easier to spot if the ground is black with fine ash. In fact, if leaves and clutter are allowed to accumulate for more than a couple of seasons the mushrooms can’t be found at all, and the fires, when they come would be much more destructive. Healthy trees are not killed by annual burning.
It is not hard to find the reason forestry officials are frustratingly passive about these forests aflame. Usually, the only damage is to air quality. Unfortunately that is a lethal danger to those with respiratory diseases. For the rest of us it is aggravating.
“Laugh, I thought I’d die!”
Lady Boy Friends the Series is available around the world now. You can get an idea what it is all about from this short trailer or this long trailer. As the trailer cut lines put it: ซีรีย์ที่จะพาคุณเข้าไปสู่โลกของนักเรียนมัธยมชายล้วน ที่เต็มไปด้วยเรื่องราวต่างๆ สะท้อนความเป็นจริงในสังคมปัจจุบัน รวมถึงเรื่องราวบางอย่างของมัธยมชายล้วน ตั้งแต่อดีตจนถึงปัจจุบัน ที่คุณอาจจะเคยสัมผัส หรืออาจจะยังไม่เคยรู้มาก่อน “The series takes you into the world of school boys unrestrictedly, reflecting current reality including some kinds of stories from the past to the present that you may or may not have touched.” Now that’s discreet. The title in Thai is เพื่อนกัน มันส์ดี which might mean “Exciting Friends” but could also mean “Provocative Friends” or “Stimulating Friends”. The English title tries to rip off the subtlety by labeling the friends “lady boys”.
A friend in San Francisco texted messages about this series to which I responded, “This is one of the ways we exaggerate, exploit and marginalize ‘kathoeys’ here. You know it is going to be from the very moment the term ‘Lady Boy’ is used because the term is demeaning and has no equivalent in Thai.” The term “lady boy” is widely used to refer to younger males in Thailand who deliberately display effeminate types of expression. The term “lady boy” has no positive connotation; it is always derogatory in one way or another. It is a linguistic invention to try to communicate to English language users that the male in question is not authentic, is cross-dressing, may be devious or even dangerous, and could be mistaken for a female prostitute by the unwary. The only meritorious application of the term is when it is used to indicate a transsexual beauty contestant, and even then it is reluctant praise inferring “imagine that!”
Perhaps I owe my friend in San Francisco an explanation about what I mean by the judgments that the series is “exaggerated, exploitative, and marginalizing” of kathoeys.
One of my friend’s friends commented that the clip was “too gay”. There were only two acceptable representations of gay life in the media in Thailand. Either we were serious and we die, or we were ridiculous and we were not serious. One of the predictable clown types in Thai movies and soap operas is a kathoey, or better yet, two of them. But there is a kathoey sub-culture in Thailand, as elsewhere where persons of minority sexual orientations are relegated to a sub-status and migrate into a survival tribe complete with totems and slang. One night this week a group of gay and kathoey friends gathered at our house. They were a challenge to my evaluation of the lady-boy stereotype as an exaggeration. Among themselves they were as campy as possible, outdoing one another with slurs and brags (just as some of the guys in the movie trailer were doing). Some of the group had invested small fortunes in silicone transplants which they emphasized by proportionally reduced amounts of clothing. But the spectrum extended all the way to the guys who had spent similar fortunes on steroids and/or body building. Was that their “reality”? The movie makers want us to think so. Underneath the social veneer of an upper-class high school there is this alternative reality, and if we peek into it we will see how funny and pathetic and ultimately tragic it is. The other reality for our party goers is that the next day they went back to being a hotel manager, a physician, a couple of actors, two florists, five college students, a banker, 10 diverse others, and me. Is there a reality behind the film series? Yes, but it is misrepresented.
That brings us to exploitation. I call it exploitation when the survival tactics of a threatened sub-culture are used to entertain those who are living so safely they cannot even imagine how these kids are dancing to get by. Exploitation movies are potential gold mines. Hollywood knows that better than anybody. Here in Thailand we can exploit kids and get away with it. In the first place, teen-age movies are targeting their largest customer base, of course. If you made a movie about aging kathoeys, and we do age, no teenagers would go to see it, and neither would we because our reality is not as มันส์ดี, not as exciting or provocative. It is more fun to think about what the kids are up to. But in the second place teen-age provocateurs are less challenging to the culture-police, those guardians of the social image. The same stories told about older people are simply seamy and sick, beyond what is tolerable. In fact, we dare not put older people into those story-lines except as antagonists or foils.
However, maintaining cultural norms is part of what those movies are about. It would never do to have the “third sex” gain respectability. What would they want next? Full human rights? It is far better, the culture-monitors (and I use that in the monitor lizard sense) believe, to keep kathoeys somewhat detestable. What better way than by constantly representing them as a-typical, conflicted but basically happy in their little world getting along just fine with each other, and vaguely pathetic. Vilify them or zooify them … put them into an acceptably remote box where we can laugh at them.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.