“How are you?” they ask, not meaning we should actually explain much about our well-being. “Fine,” we respond, either wanting to get beyond polite social small-talk or to cut off the conversation. But reality is complex. We may not feel “fine” at all, or we may feel “fine” unrealistically. Our most common gloss, however, is to let some negative aspect of our circumstances define our whole condition.
Our sense of well-being is often unfairly diminished by our current condition. For instance, a toothache can eclipse everything else. A financial loss can make one suicidal. Winter doldrums can lead to debilitating depression. On the other hand a spate of good fortune can divert attention from one’s chronic illness or conflict with relatives. Success at sports can offset a student’s stumbling grades in academic subjects.
It is helpful, from time to time, to take a more holistic look at ones condition and try to put the current “big issue” into perspective.
WHAT CONSTITUTES WELL-BEING?
There are several factors that contribute to one’s sense of well-being. Consider these four: social (family/community), emotional (happiness/balance), one’s primary role (gauged by security and accomplishment), and physical (health/sexual fulfillment).
I have devised a simple test to calculate these factors:
Test of Well-being
In answering the following 8 questions use this scale 0 to 5:
0 none at all, zero
1 very little, hardly any
2 a barely significant amount
3 an OK level, tolerable, usually satisfactory and acceptable
4 a great deal, quite a lot
5 very much, maximum amount that is likely
1. Social satisfaction:
Question 1: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you spend handling your family and community interests and requirements?
Question 2: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION (fulfillment, rewards) do you feel you derive from your family and community connections and involvement?
2. Emotional satisfaction:
Question 3: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you expend on your emotional life (your happiness, mental health, balance)?
Question 4: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION do you feel you derive from the effort you are spending on your emotional welfare (how is that working for you)?
3. Satisfaction regarding your main role in life:
Question 5: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you put into your security and accomplishment as a productive person (e.g. as a professional, worker, student, parent – your main role at present)?
Question 6: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION does this role provide for you?
4. Physical satisfaction:
Question 7: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you feel you are expending on your physical well-being (health, sexual, and nutritional aspects of life)?
Question 8: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION do you get from your physical condition as it is (how do you feel about the results of your efforts to provide for your physical and sexual well-being)?
Assessing the results of this inventory:
A. There are 4 ENERGY scores which indicate your levels of stress or concern about that factor of your well-being. Assign those scores with a minus. Energy spent is the cost of satisfaction.
B. There are 5 SATISFACTION scores which indicate your sense that things in that area are positive. Assign those scores with a plus. This satisfaction is how much that effort was worthwhile.
C. Calculate the 4 minuses and the 4 plusses to arrive at a satisfaction score. Your overall satisfaction rating will be somewhere on a continuum between -20 and +20. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say any score lower than -10 indicates a serious sense of concern, whereas a score of more that +10 is an indication of celebration. The great majority of us will, at any one time, be feeling our well-being is somewhere in the middle, between -10 and +10.
D. Remember, these scores fluctuate all the time.
Despite our tendency to blame factors beyond our control, well-being is our own sense of how things are. The conclusion we draw is our own internal calculation or miscalculation.
This is not to dismiss the fact that circumstances do make an impact. For instance, being evicted, expelled, or attacked are real. But how those impact our sense of well-being, is not always all about those circumstances. “I’m a victim,” “I can’t control my attitudes,” or “I live in a messed-up world,” would not be all that needs to be said about one’s well-being.
Imagine you are anxious about how your retirement savings are going to run out. This tends to become a consuming worry. If you took time to factor it into a holistic picture you’d have a more realistic assessment. Your answers to the 8 questions and the resulting scores might look like this:
1. Family is most important. I give it a lot of energy. Energy spent is -4
2. Family is most important. They are the love of my life. Satisfaction is +5
3. I’m OK emotionally. I needn’t work at it very hard. Energy spent is -2
4. I’m OK emotionally. I am essentially quite happy. Satisfaction is +4
5. I planned my security wrong. I’m panicking. Energy spent is -4.
6. My retirement savings are gone. My worry isn’t working. Satisfaction is +0.
7. My health is good. I work at it. Energy spent is -3
8. I am energetic and fine. This is one worry I don’t have. Satisfaction is +5
You, despite your retirement worries, have an overall lack of concern about well-being. It is a level of +1 on a scale of -20 to +20, right in the middle of a bell-shaped curve.
Imagine two people have cancer. Why might one of them have a very negative sense of overall well-being while the other feels not-so-bad? Both patients are expending a very great deal of energy (almost all they have, -5) confronting their condition and they both feel they are not yet getting best results. Their score of benefits is only +1. In both cases the physical score is low (-4). Their well-being score, however, includes three other factors. Patient A has no financial worries nor job concerns (+4 for what we are calling “role satisfaction”), and the patient has to expend very little effort at maintaining that level of security (-0) = +4. Patient B is going to be bankrupted by this medical crisis (no “satisfaction” about security (+0) while devoting all sorts of effort to getting ready to handle this (-4 – a high sense of effort expended) = -4 score regarding the patient's sense of getting benefit from their main role in life right now. Patient A is a recluse and has little sense of social standing or community esteem and so concludes that’s worth about +2, but A doesn’t put much effort into it anymore (so the expended effort is “hardly any” for -1). Patient B, on the other hand, has been almost overcome with community and family support during this medical crisis (+4 for question 2), while having a sense of not contributing very much towards the community and family at present (-1). That is benefits +4 over effort -1 for a social satisfaction score of +3. As for emotional satisfaction, as hospital patients, they are needing to work rather hard to maintain their balance, so their energy and benefit from their effort cancel each other out (+3 and -3 = 0). Patient A’s overall sense of well-being, looked at holistically, is -4, +4, +1, and 0. Patient B’s overall sense of well-being is -4, -4, +4, and 0. As of today A is doing better than B.
Notice, it is not one factor (wealth, social support, emotional balance, or medical condition) that makes a difference in their sense of well-being, but their concern about these things. In fact, A’s financial reality might be dire without A knowing it. B might be about to learn that insurance is going to cover this and the present worry is going to go away. Hard reality is one thing, but a sense of well-being is what motivates us.
One’s sense of well-being may swing quickly, but it is the intuitive engine that tends to drive one’s action. The strength and duration of the sense of well-being are what determine the intensity of energy allocated to action. The goal of the action, of every one of our actions, is to enhance our sense of well-being. A basic human need is a sense of well-being
The main rite of passage into adulthood for Thai young men is the military lottery that comes after their 21st birthday. Every April, all over the country, all 21 year-olds are assembled in their home district to be sorted. It is a tense and emotional experience.
Yesterday was the big day for our nephew, Wave, and about 100 other boys becoming men in our district.
First they are “examined” to see if they are fit for military service. Most pass. Then they are given a chance to volunteer. The military has already announced how many recruits they need. They wanted 73. Thirty volunteered. That meant another 43 would be drafted from the remaining 73 eligible males. The process is decades old. 43 red slips in capsules were put into a container along with 30 black slips. (They used to be colored balls.) The guys were called forward one village at a time, and one by one they pulled a ball from the container. If the capsule contained a red slip they were in the army for a year or two, but if the slip was black they were given an exemption form and they were free from military service for the rest of their life.
Nephew Wave was one of the lucky ones. He pulled a black slip out of the container. He said he’d not been nervous until it actually came close to his turn, but his hand was shaking. There were two 21 year-olds from his village. The other guy drew a red slip and nearly fainted. Relatives were gathered in bleachers around the arena, and there was cheering and wailing as each slip was announced. Wave came home with his exemption paper, I took his picture with it and we had a nice cook-out to celebrate.
What we were celebrating, of course, was not just his escape from jeopardy as a soldier. Plans had already been made with relatives in the Army to get Wave assigned close to home. It helps to know people. We were celebrating Wave’s formal passage into full-fledged adulthood, citizenship, and social status. There are three widely accepted rites. In addition to the draft lottery which is the big one, getting a diploma marking the end of formal education and getting formally married with relatives of both the bride and groom tying cords of blessing around the couple’s wrists (which is done on other occasions as well) are the other two. Earlier in the week Wave’s class graduated from vocational school. So, for Wave he was 2 for 3. It could be that he and his live-in girlfriend will now "tie the know" to complete the set.
Young women have rites of passage, too, in Thai society. They can also get a diploma from a vocational or academic institution and enter the ranks of the gainfully employed. Commencement ceremonies are very important and convincing rites of passage for them. They can get married. If they have a baby, that is a powerful signal. I noticed that at the very time Wave was in the arena yesterday morning, his cousin posted an announcement online to the effect, “I am proud to be independently sufficient and to be raising two children.” Of course, she and her husband are doing this together with a lot of help from extended family, as this is done in Thailand, but she was announcing the truth, she has passed well and truly into adulthood, and she’s proud.
That’s how it’s done here.
The debate about Christians using Jewish worship forms, such as the Seder service, emerges every year during Lent. It is part of the wider, on-going argument about the validity of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Christian churches. In general, conservative and orthodox Jews are adamant that the intrusion of Christians into Judaism is to be opposed, and conservative evangelicals also view efforts to appropriate Jewish rituals and festivals as “efforts to undermine the separation of the two religions.” Evangelicals do not want to understand Jews, they want to convert them. Jews argue that the one thing settled between Jews and Christians is that they are permanently separated by the difference of opinion about Jesus as the same Messiah the Jews anticipated and still expect.
Rabbi David Wolpe put it this way: “There are some today who speak of themselves as ‘Jews for Jesus.’ This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Mohammed.’ A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.” [Rabbi David Wolpe, “Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus” January 9, 2003 reprinted in the March 27, 2021 edition of Jewish Journal.] At the heart of Rabbi Wolpe’s reasoning is the fact that the world is a mess. The job of the Messiah is to fix that. Jesus did not do that. Ergo, Jesus is not the Messiah.
It would be best to separate the matters into two parts.
My own limited experience has convinced me that the effort to incorporate Messianic theology into Jewish traditions is much older than “Jews for Jesus” which began in the 1970s.
In 1960 I was hired for the summer to work as a counselor at Presbyterian Camps in Saugatuck Michigan. There were 3 camps on the campsite owned by the Presbytery of Chicago. One of them was Camp Piniel operated by the First Hebrew Christian Church of Chicago, which was an outgrowth of Piniel Center, a neighborhood house established by Presbyterians more than a century ago.
As I remember it being explained to me, the congregation was Jewish who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. They continued Jewish worship in the Ashkenazi (European diaspora) form but included readings from the New Testament. It was significant that this congregation was a full-fledged member of Chicago Presbytery. They were somehow Jewish and Presbyterian. It was founded in 1934. In 1960 I heard that it still conducted some services in Hungarian language.
Daniel Juster, pastor (rabbi) of the First Hebrew Christian church of Chicago from 1972-77, was a graduate from my own alma-mater, McCormick Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a Presbyterian teaching elder.
The church is now named Adat Hatikvah Messianic Synagogue and is in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield. It is no longer listed as a church of Chicago Presbytery. Notice, the congregation no longer calls itself either Hebrew or Christian.
I do not expect the aggravation to go away that is felt by Jews against invasion and aggression of Christians, nor do I imagine the anguish felt by Christians, who love their Jewish heritage and want to retain as much as possible of it, to diminish in the face of denunciation for embracing Jesus as Messiah.
But I will argue that it is not up to Jews to invalidate the Messianic movement. The heart of the matter is that it is basically legitimate for a new religious movement to attempt to establish itself as a form of an older one, even if the older religion doesn’t like it. Christians hated it when Joseph Smith announced the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons, for short). “They are not CHRISTIAN,” the Christians ranted. It was not, however, up to the Christians to decide what the Mormons called themselves or what they borrowed from Christian jargon and practices. Christianity was at the core of Mormons’ theology and identity. By the same token it is not up to other Christians in the Philippines to decide that Iglesia Ni Cristo is not Christian.
Amalgamated religious movements have a right to exist in a free society. Here in Chiang Mai there are Jewish-Buddhists (espoused by several people from New York City) and a prominent Baha’i community (most of whom were refugees from Iran). No matter what religious leaders think of it, Baha’i is firmly convinced that it is composed of the most shining tenets of each of the world’s great religions (amalgamated, indeed!). One of the most impressive Baha’i temples is in Tel Aviv and the other is in Winnetka just north of Chicago. Indeed, the entire history of religion is full of movements that incorporate older traditions, as well as movements to eliminate and purify religions from those old traditions.
Christian Seder services are a separate matter.
In the last few decades many Christian churches have conducted Seder services using Jewish rubrics. Individual families or groups have done so as well, including the Obama family in 2009 (pictured above in a White House photo of the first such service in the White House). They usually try to re-enact the traditional Seder service while mentioning the way it might have happened with Jesus and his disciples on the night before he was crucified. Actually, the form being used today originated in the rabbinic period after Jews and Christians had separated. Any connection between what Jesus did that night and what Jews do in Seder services is largely speculative.
As for borrowing cultural bits to incorporate into Christian worship, that is always controversial. Here in Thailand the most conservative cultural preservationists do not like it when Christians use Thai traditional dance or music, and conservative Christians also refuse to do so. But most Christian churches now set up shrines to “honor” royalty on their birthdays or memorial days. The prescribed ritual is decidedly not Christian. Royalty are venerated because they are avatars of the Hindu god, Rama. In various ways Christianity is continually borrowing from other religions.
In the USA the use of African-American spirituals has passed into acceptability. Under certain circumstances it might work to have a Hopi dance group do the Butterfly Dance in a Christian event, but we have come to understand it is wrong to have the dance and costumes done by those who are not Hopi ethnic Native Americans. Many churches could as easily do a Taize chant as to have a bagpiper lead a procession, but they would draw the line at having a Buddhist monk pronounce a benediction or a Muslim start a Christian event with an invocation (as the Presbyterian General Assembly did in 2016, creating a furor).
It is correct these days to yield to those of a given religious and cultural tradition if they object to others outside that religious-cultural tradition using its forms or artifacts. So, it is taken for granted that Jews should have the deciding voice about whether Christians should be allowed to borrow any form of the Seder service for Holy Week. Nevertheless, that proprietary right has its limits. That limit has been reached when the form being questioned is basic to the very character of the group being challenged. That is why I would say that Jews should be listened to carefully when they criticize a Presbyterian Church for desecrating the holy Seder service if it is being conducted on Maundy Thursday. But Jews would be off base if they try to prevent the Adat Hatikvah congregation from doing so.
Images of Gay Muslim Reality in South Thailand
Samak Kosem has undertaken a daunting endeavor: to artistically portray the reality of Islamic LGBTK life in Thailand’s far south. He is (among other things) an anthropologist and a graphic artist using photography, videos, and montages to elicit insights. In the process of composing his projects he investigated and interviewed communities to confirm his perceptions that LGBTK people of all ages are living throughout Muslim communities but that conversation about gender must be nuanced and indirect.
In a “Payap Presents” program from Payap University on March 24, 2021, the Chiang Mai University PhD candidate told us about several of his art projects and the metaphorical theory behind his productions.
One set of images was of sheep, which he explained are the most marginalized animals living in Islamic villages, as are gay people; but in his exhibits he let the pictures speak for themselves saying, “This is what marginalization looks like.” From photographs, Samak proceeded to sculptures of sheep to require visitors to go among the sheep.
Another project was a video of an actor on a crowded holiday beach surrounded by Muslim families. He was apparently celebrating life as a gender-ambiguous pondan or kathoey. In explaining to others on the beach what he was doing he had obfuscated; he told them the video being made was about littering. The video also said, “This is what it ought to be like being gay in the middle of everyone.”
A third project was portraits of gender-diverse Muslims of various ages, but he had hidden their eyes behind blocks of text to protect their identities because fundamentalist groups used such pictures to find the individuals and intimidate them. Reality is dangerous.
Samak described some of his conclusions and inferred others. The overall impression he made is that being a gay Muslim in South Thailand is publically unacceptable. But, as everywhere, there are gay young people. They are being confronted and tolerated (within limits). In one school pondan boys are segregated for daily prayers, “to protect them from bullies,” the teachers said. This is progress beyond the bullying being encouraged or ignored. Mothers, Samak found, are more tolerant of gay boys because they realize some of their sons are gay, but men are more rigid. Samak concluded, “You can be queer and you can be Muslim. But that cannot overlap.” For example, if a “Tom” (lesbian presenting as male) is participating in something religious, they must wear a hijab (Muslim headscarf). Gay men are pressured to get married by age 40 and from then on they conform to religious moral norms again.
Samak has made presentations to Muslim audiences in which he interpreted his art. He characterized some of his audience as “shocked.” It seems that religion has a stifling influence on trends toward social acceptance of Thai LGBTK Muslims. It is behind Thai society at large in this regard. However, progress is being made in small ways wherein religion is not the overwhelming factor.
I was impressed that in the Muslim south just as in the Buddhist north, “If your family accepts you, you are fine. But if your family does not accept you, you have nowhere to go.” In Thailand all progress toward gender equality starts with the family.
Thank you, Samak Kosem for a fascinating presentation and best wishes as you complete your PhD at Chiang Mai University.
To see more of Samak’s work, access: http://aura-asia-art-project.com/en/artists/samak-kosem-minorities-and-artwork-in-islamic-society
REFLECTIONS ABOUT TEACHING ENGLISH IN THAILAND
Twenty years ago Dr. Janjira Wongkhomthong and I undertook an innovative venture, to transform Christian University of Thailand (CUT) into the English language hub of the western exurbia of Bangkok. It is fairer to say she directed the exploration and I was her scout. The objective was to have CUT come to mind when people in our part of the country thought of English language.
As I reminisce, what we tried from 2001-2007 was both audacious and intriguing. There were lessons to be learned from our attempts, mostly about intractable obstacles that block educational innovation and English language enhancement in Thailand.
First a list of things we tried:
1. “English activities workshops for teachers” (7+ workshops)
2. “English camps” (5 week-long camps and several one day fun events)
3. “English for Professional Nurses” (10 workshops)
4. “English for RATGEN” (The Ratchaburi Electric Generating Company) (4 modules)
5. “English for the Ministry of Culture headquarters staff” (3 modules)
6. “English for staff of Nakhon Pathom District” (one attempt)
7. “English for staff of the Governor’s Office of Nakhom Pathom” (one module)
8. Required English proficiency for all degree programs of CUT’
9. Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language
10. “English In A Minute” (4 series of tapes for local radio stations)
11. “English for Advanced Professional Nurses” (specialized course in the curriculum)
12. English contests for high school students
13. Preparation for passing the government English exams
These endeavors were of three types: (1) to establish the CUT “brand” as a reliable and available resource and top-notch center for English programs; (2) to meet expressed need for special English training in workplaces; (3) to explore research and development plans for meeting the country’s need for better English competency.
In retrospect we learned more about what we ought to be doing than what people wanted us to do. Our discoveries were potentially more valuable for establishing administrative priorities than educational plans.
English is not a top priority. It is important to keep this in mind. All attempts to teach English confront the fact that something else is more important. English acquisition is not unimportant, but there are always over-riding reasons for students and clients to sign up for a course or event. English is supplemental. Our efforts were most successful when we aimed to satisfy the main objectives. English teachers liked our workshops if they were fun, if they provided ideas for things to do with children that didn’t need a lot of preparation, and if the workshop filled some in-service requirement for the teachers. The workshops for nurses were a hit as long as we focused on successful communication with patients, and that involved basic principles of communication with people of different cultures.
Profit should not be an objective. Aside from full-fledged academic courses, one-time short courses and workshops are not highly profitable. The reason for providing the workshops and events should be to publicize the institution, to expose the workshop leaders to workplace realities, and to show support for community concerns. An effective language workshop must have an effective student-teacher ratio which will always be smaller than a student can afford, so supplemental finances are always going to be needed either by reducing the cost of the workshop (meaning the university assumes some of the cost) or by attaching the workshop to a program that is funded otherwise (which usually involves increasing the number of participants and reducing the learning outcomes).
Special English takes R&D. By the end of our 7 years we had learned that there is no short-cut in the research and development of helpful courses for specialized workers, but there are ways to be more effective. Every workplace in Thailand has its own limited need for using English. It is best to get clear about what the participants need to be able to communicate in English before (or at the beginning of) a workshop. If the need is for staff to take international visitors on a tour of a factory the conversation is different from negotiating a contract for equipment. Our most successful short courses were those where the communication need was clearest and we had time to refine the course.
Proficiency takes time. There is a continual stream of programs that promise you can learn a language in no time. Those are unscrupulous. On average it takes 200 hours of educational effort to improve one level in English proficiency, from early intermediate to intermediate, for example. For this reason, “achievement” is often substituted for “proficiency” as a program objective. It is too disheartening to come right out with the truth that a 20-hour workshop can’t get you very far toward proficiency.
Thailand is getting better. It is undeniable that it is easier to get around the country using only English than it used to be. Far more people have functional levels of communication. But at the same time graduating students in Thailand have slipped below those of neighboring countries to such an extent that the educational effort in Thailand is widely agreed to be failing. One explanation for this paradox is that the prescribed English curricula are wrong, and so students are not motivated to do more than pass the necessary exams, but they learn to get by with English in many other ways. That, too, was one of the things we learned between 2001 and 2007, but we did not find out what to do about it. Policy decisions are not in the hands of English teachers.
The head of a Bible College was disgusted at a picture he saw of me participating in a service for a Buddhist abbot in our neighborhood. He thought it represented a repudiation of Christianity.
Here in “The Land of Smiles” being soft on Buddhism is one of the things that can disqualify you from the ranks of trustworthy Christians. Being openly LGBTK will relegate you to the back pews as well. One cannot be both highly political and a prominent Christian leader. Those three: that’s about it.
Interestingly, having a position on abortion doesn’t wave a red flag. Nor does your conviction about how many days it took God to create the world in which we live.
I take this as evidence that the tests of unworthiness are not the same for Christian groups everywhere. Most of the things which are fracturing Christianity in the USA are fairly inert here. Conspiracy theories in the USA about the causes of wildfires, climate change, or the current pandemic have caused people to leave churches and pastors to resign. But not one case of anything like that has leaked into this country.
Obviously, the corrosive factors that disintegrate religious unity are cultural. If they were religious or theological they would be cross-cultural.
Several years ago the Protestant church in Thailand quaked and some fractures occurred. At the time, I had our class of Master of Divinity students study the cause of these splits. They did interviews and gathered histories. In every case the presenting reason for the impending split was theological having to do with the “power of the Holy Spirit” or the inerrant truth about some aspect of religious practice. But the division in every case was on social lines, one clan versus another, or unwillingness to share power or to tolerate dissent. The struggles became so widespread that the national church conducted a series of gatherings to disseminate the “truth about the Holy Spirit” and quench charismatic zeal. None of the churches reconciled through that campaign although restored calm convinced a couple to remain in the denomination. Our class concluded that since the cause was social-cultural, a theological appeal would not get at the root.
In counseling we know that the presenting issue is rarely the basic issue. “His drinking” may get a couple to a counselor, but the counseling must delve deeper if the marriage is to be saved. You cannot heal a social division by simply addressing the presenting issue any more than you can heal a disease by suppressing the symptoms.
Some very recent surveys suggest that almost half the Protestant pastors in the USA have heard QAnon conspiracy theories mentioned by members of their congregations. In many cases these have led to serious concern about the future of the American church. I read an article just a day ago that worries a QAnon religion (sect or cult) is emerging. At the same time voices are reminding us that the situation in the USA is cultural division which cannot be overcome by appeals for either national unity or religious reform. The problem is that conspiracy-driven evangelicalism is anti-intellectual, and therefore impervious to fact-driven intellectual arguments.
Perhaps viral infection is an analogy. A virus is hard to kill without killing the host it has infected. If the victim does not mobilize anti-viral responses the victim will die. A vaccination works to alert the host to the possibility of infection so that the antivirus is already available when the virus shows up. The body must mount the attack and heal itself.
Since churches and religious organizations are aspects of the cultural body-politic, the protection and preservation of those institutions is not all that’s at stake. The whole body is infected, not just the organs of religion.
Well, I began this exercise by reflecting on how different Christian intolerance in Thailand is compared to the USA. Having come this far, I have one final observation. Christianity in Thailand used to be far more intolerant of Buddhism than it now is. Living together has made a difference, but working on shared concerns has tipped the balance. Justice and compassion are “enzymes” religious organs produce for the whole body. The HIV-AIDS crisis as well as several previous ones (leprosy comes to mind) stimulated inter-religious action that helped religious intolerance and rivalry fade.
COVID could be America’s vaccine to get the body-politic alert to the anti-intellectual virus that’s attacking. If religious organs pump out quantities of justice and compassion they will have done what they can.
From the first year I became a teacher in the theological seminary here in Thailand in 1965 I began to realize, “We are not doing this right.” Then 40 years ago I had an opportunity to try a new approach to theological education. For a couple of years I took a group of students on week-ends to work in a cluster of village churches. The work was practical and involved teaching classes, leading worship, preaching, and sometimes interventions. Every week we’d then discuss and reflect on what had happened.
What we did was reverse the educational paradigm for those “practical theology” functions (i.e. preaching, teaching, counseling, and officiating). In traditional classes the process is essentially to focus on a concept and then tell stories about how that works out in various situations. We gather in classrooms to study activities going on somewhere else. It is about principles in search of applications. On our weekends the situations came first and the concepts were identified in retrospect. It was inductive. We did what we needed to do; then we thought carefully about it, and tried to do it better the next time, if there was a next time.
We were constantly surprised by peak learning moments. The best were challenges or interruptions, random and unplanned. Sometimes it was a spontaneous act that reverberated most resoundingly. [I was astonished by the ripples that resulted from my simply taking a blind man to breakfast one Sunday morning (as in the picture with this essay). Most of the student-team hadn’t realized how important random acts of kindness could be as keys to ministry.]
Context was a continuous issue, without which most of the learning experiences made less sense. In fact, it was context that made every incident unique, and it was uniqueness that demanded coherent explanation, that being the threshold of theological meaning inherent in the experience.
Pretty soon it happened that the learning that was taking place not only informed us about the practical undertakings in which we were involved, they were also leading to vocational and spiritual discernment that just never happened as predictably in other kinds of theological education.
Another result was the evolution of community. At the outset we were a group of outsiders who came on weekends. But our group coalesced and became colleagues. The villages to which we went welcomed us as they were able, but that evolved to the point that we actually became part of the village to some extent because of how we slept on floors and ate in the market or in church halls with kids. If there was a village fair we were there, and toward the end of the year we had a fair and the whole village came.
If we had not had to conform to the university’s academic requirements and calendar we would have achieved a level of involvement in which we became participants in village affairs with voices in creating the village’s future as well as expanding the capacity of the church to be effective and influential. That was a vision some of those students perceived. Even though that model was not continued by the seminary in Thailand, some of those students never lost the vision.
The Case of Chiang Mai 1950 to 2020
Chiang Mai tourism is in the worst crisis of its 70 year history. According to a February 1, 2021 article by Pim Kemsingki in Citylife magazine, tourism is never going to recover. She has talked to a lot of individuals about a lot of closed shops that used to cater to tourists’ need for transportation, housing and guides. The COVID-19 epidemic which closed Thailand’s borders in order to isolate and protect the health of people living in Thailand has reduced tourism from 10 million in 2018 to just about zero. For a while during the second half of 2020 it looked like most tourism enterprises might hang on, and then the big wave hit, beginning with an outbreak in Samut Sakhon Province. Very few tourists will put up with 2 weeks in a quarantine hotel in order to spend time in Chiang Mai looking at flowers.
Domestic tourism in Chiang Mai depends on seasonal influxes during the cool season from late November through January when the weather and the Yipeng / Loy Kratong holidays draw millions from around the country. Flowers are at their best, and there is a Flower Festival the first weekend of February. Hotels fill up during this season. Another mass gathering can be expected during the Songkran Festival, April 13-15. Those large gatherings were cancelled by the pandemic. The government attempted to stimulate domestic tourism during 2020, offering subsidies for groups going on tours within the country. This helped a little, but was eventually disappointing, and then a couple of COVID scares shut down domestic tourism entirely.
Overseas tourism to Chiang Mai has expanded every year since Thailand instituted the international plan for converting air transportation in and out of Chiang Mai up to international standards following a blueprint provided by two taskforces in 1975 and 1977 carried out by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
According to insiders in the hotel industry (note the source), the shut-down has become devastating. They submit that a full 65% of Chiang Mai’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) depends on tourism. Every year from 1970 to 2018 tourism grew. At the peak, 3.2 million overseas tourists and 7.5 domestic tourists came to Chiang Mai. 70.3% of them were what the industry calls “free independent tourists” and 29.7% came in tour groups. There has been a noticeable and controversial increase in tour groups from China, especially following the success of a 2012 blockbuster Chinese comedy filmed in Thailand. “Lost In Thailand” was the highest grossing movie of all time in China the year it came out.
It has often been observed that there are two major factors that have boosted tourism in Thailand. One has been successful films, including “The King and I”, “Man with a Golden Gun” (a James Bond movie filmed in Phuket), “Bridge Over the River Kwai”, “Blue Lagoon”, and “The Beach” as well as “The Ugly American”. The other promoter of tourism has been airline industries, beginning with Pan American Airlines, and then Thai Air in partnership with Scandinavian Airline (SAS). [The most interesting article, with great photographs and details, that describes how Thailand’s tourism grew, is a June 13, 2018 blog post entitled “The Golden Era of Thailand Tourism: 1947-1979” on the website My Thailand. If you are interested enough in Thai tourism to have read this far you really should read Jeff’s article.]
To my knowledge, the most influential individual to develop tourism in Chiang Mai was Mr. Kraisri Nimmanhaemin, whom I had a chance to visit in about 1966. Tourism was picking up, and Khun Kraisri thought Chiang Mai should be a premier destination in Thailand because of its cultural diversity, religious attractions, climate, and history. He managed to have PATA come to Chiang Mai for one of its annual meetings. In order to get the town ready, he built the Rincome Hotel on Huay Kaew Road, and then had it connected straight to the airport. He also developed a plan to convert the road from the Chiang Mai Railway Station to the town of Sankampaeng into a strip of handicraft showcases where tourists could conveniently see traditional crafts being made in workshops that had formerly been scattered all over the district and often in people’s houses. Anchored by silk production in Shinawatra family factories in Sankampaeng, and an umbrella cooperative in nearby Borsang, silver, laquerware, wood carving, bronzeware, and celadon stoneware factories and salesrooms were constructed along the road. Elephant camps, mountain treks, and resorts quickly followed.
Khun Kraisri was also the moving force behind other big enterprises, including the acquisition of land (vast amounts of land) for Chiang Mai University. He was a leader in a movement to restore historic temples and to promote traditional festivals as events which attracted more than nearby participants. His business interests were extensive but he was sure that whatever was good for Chiang Mai was good for him, too.
The tourists hoped for by Khun Kraisri and Lieutenant General Chalermchai Charuvastr, Director General of the Tourist Organization of Thailand, would be flying in, staying 3 days, and leaving with bargains they had acquired. The Royal State Railway also expanded services (in all honesty the new services somewhat exceeded the capacity of the single-track rail line completed in 1920). A new generation of tourists who planned on spending a lot less than the cost of air tickets came with backpacks and expectations of adventure. Bus lines also began overnight service to Chiang Mai from Bangkok just as soon as the “Superhighway” was opened in 1968 (beginning at the doorstep of Khun Kraisri’s hotel, as a matter of fact). It encircled Chiang Mai and went over Khun Tan Mountain to Lampang and on to Bangkok and the rest of the world.
Chiang Mai tourism diversified. Over 200 hotels and guesthouses of all price ranges are in the greater Chiang Mai area. Tourists also have diverse needs and desires, as well as abilities to get around and infiltrate remote places. Over time, and with sufficient numbers of tourists, those places change.
If a particular site becomes a significant tourist destination, the normal arc is something like this:
1. The place is hard to get to, but interesting (e.g. a cave, ethnic village, or historic landmark).
2. Accessibility is improved, followed by accommodations.
3. Popularity and publicity develop traffic even more. It becomes a “must-see”.
4. Major developers erect structures that begin to alter the nature of the environment.
5. The basic character of the inhabitants or the site drifts toward commercial goals.
6. The aspect that made the place interesting is gone, but it has acquired a new character that is profitable that depends entirely on tourists.
7. Something happens that obliterates the attractiveness or availability of the place as a tourist destination. This can be as sudden as a volcanic eruption or gradual as drifting desert sand.
There just seems to be something about the tourism industry that impels it toward self-destruction. Over-development is the main culprit. It is apparently impossible to control. The point of no-return depends on conditions. A fragile ecology may mean that even a little tourism will be too much, in which case tourism must be prevented from the outset, but some tourists are intrepid and governments may be lax. Sometimes the attraction is remote and can be protected without very much effort (a long arduous hike tends to cut traffic). In other cases the attraction is so large that even major buildings would not spoil the splendor.
If tourists come for culture (as they do in Chiang Mai), that too can be spoiled by the Goldilocks effect (too much or too little); some cultural attractions depend on heavy traffic as is the case with the theater districts of New York or London, but other cultural wonders are attractive only if outsiders are unobtrusive. Some temples lose their purpose if there are distractions. Cultural events count on people participating in the event, not stifling it. Cultural tourism teeters on the balance between cultural attractions and “what ELSE do the tourists want to do?” Very often it is these alternatives that suffocate the delicate cultural heart.
Early in the development of Chiang Mai as a tourism center, studies began to consider the effects of tourism on the region. A major paper was produced by UNESCO, “Case Study on the Effects of Tourism on Culture and Environment: Thailand” by Chupinit Kesamanee and Kulawadee Charoensri in 1995. They concluded, of course, that tourism would have an impact which needed to be carefully considered when using tourism as an economic objective. Even earlier studies were clear that tourism as an industry is hard to sustain. It is sustainability, in fact, that concerns tourism developers. Their question always is, “What happens if we put a lot of money into this and then it collapses?” The answer they give themselves is speculative, based on how likely the bubble would burst before they recoup their investment. Tourism business decisions are not highly informed by concern for culture and environment. Lower down the economic pyramid are those who propose to become involved in the industry. Housekeepers do not need to think far beyond the issues of travel distance to work and expected salary. But young people signing up for bachelor’s degrees in hotel and tourism are making a bigger gamble that the industry as a whole has a place for them and will continue to need employees with their qualifications.
The future of tourism in Chiang Mai is not utterly hopeless. The province still has natural attractions, religious significance, and history. Ethnic diversity is less distinct than it used to be, but the reason is not due to tourism; the government is succeeding in enfolding all residents in a blended national culture.
The main features that built the Chiang Mai tourism industry now have competition. If exotic culture was a big draw, other countries now have those, too. Chiang Mai has become another crowded city.
Of the twelve best things to do in Chiang Mai on one list I just read, only 3 are not available many other places. Most of the things tourists want to do in addition to cultural exploration can be done just about anywhere that tourism is accommodated. On most lists Chiang Mai cannot compete with the top contenders for scenery or excitement, but if tourism is to be renewed following COVID-19, it will have to do what Kraisri did and develop from the ground up. However, from a business perspective, moving Chiang Mai in a new direction would probably be more profitable and sustainable.
In the end all tourism is unsustainable if things go wrong, as they inevitably do. Sometimes tourism recovers, sometimes not.
Has the Myanmar military miscalculated by cutting the Internet?
The United Nations issued a watered-down statement on the military actions being taken to destroy democracy and intimidate the population in Myanmar / Burma. “The world is watching,” the statement ended.
But the world is doing nothing as the military continue night-time arrests, removes legal restraints that protected privacy, and ratchets up provocations that become excuses for use of force “to restore order.”
Since the coup before dawn on February 1 hundreds of thousands of citizens have marched daily in as many as 500 cities and towns. No doubt the coup leaders expect these marches to cool down. But a nighttime curfew has provided cover for the military to send squads to people’s homes to arrest those who participated in the protest marches. The new regime has rescinded twenty-year old privacy laws, so the “authorities” can now act without bothering to get a court order to break into homes without warning and arrest anyone without specifying cause, and then hold those detained for indefinite periods. [The picture accompanying this blog is of students in Mandalay on Valentine’s Day protesting the midnight arrests, from Irrawaddy.]
Not only marches, but other forms of protest have taken place, including work stoppages. The most famous was by physicians and medical staff who wore red ribbons of the pro-democracy movement and refused to handle any but emergency cases. Doctors were then rounded up in nighttime raids. A “general strike” beginning on February 10 continues, closing banks, hospitals, businesses, transportation, and even government services.
The object of the arrests, of course, is to intimidate protestors and to acclimatize the population to the re-imposition of military rule. On 8 8 88 (Aug 8 1988) a massive uprising in support of democracy began a movement that led a month later to military response leaving between 3000 and 10,000 dead with many more missing. This has been a constant reminder to people in Burma that the military has guns and will use them.
But the disruption of Internet communications, in order to control access to news of the protests, has also destroyed businesses that were being conducted via the internet as COVID-19 closed in-person operations. Young people of the IT generation are the most adept at transforming their income sources to work online. Panda, a company that provides home deliveries of products which people order, has been ruined, according to the Irrawaddy newspaper. Thousands of young people have been thrown out of work for this and other delivery services, along with the companies and stores depending on orders coming by the Internet. Scores of other new commercial enterprises are going out of business.
What this means in political terms is that the livelihood of a massive number of people has been harmed. In Burma people can tolerate a level of suppression of public and personal freedom unbearable by people in many other countries, but destruction of their livelihood will put the military under pressure they have never had in modern times.
“You messed with the wrong generation” became the message of the week to the junta regime (two terms declared illegal on Monday). In response, the regime has moved military hardware onto the streets back into plain sight. It is a dangerous time to be in Burma if both the masses of the young and the military each decide they have nothing to lose.
The coup in Myanmar is a reminder that there is a contest going on with two teams choosing up sides. As far as East Asia and the Pacific are concerned, the captains are Joe and Xi. The US President has his job made harder by the departing captain for the USA. Ex-president Trump was partial to authoritarianism but President Biden has made clear public statements that US foreign policy will be defending democracy. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has demonstrated that he “doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body,” to quote Biden’s now famous declaration. Xi takes pride in taking control to get things done his way.
So the captains are lining up their teams. Min Aung Hlaing, Senior General of the Myanmar armed forces and the new “dictator” of Burma, is counting on China to help. That help came a few days ago when the United Nations debated how to respond to the coup in Burma; China and Russia vetoed action by the UN. Despite China’s persistent usurpation of area in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte can’t bring himself to go with the USA. Trump praised Duterte for his drug war and appreciated his authoritarianism, which has reduced civil rights but the Philippine President doesn’t think he’ll get real help from Biden if it’s needed, so he’s expecting trade with China to trump Xi’s territorial expansionism. Other authoritarian regimes in the area are going to play on China’s team for the time being, as long as it stays away from anything with guns and rockets.
The other authoritarian mega-state in this part of the world is India under the current leadership of Narendra Modi. India’s relationship with China is constantly on the brink of war over some chunk of mountains or another. Modi was thrilled to have Trump line up with him, and he hopes Biden will not spoil this alliance. Aside from India, Team Democracy counts on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan along with Australia and New Zealand. The team with its US captain, however, has some pretty tainted democrats. It would be best to admit that democracy is not the guiding principle in agreeing to have Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand on Biden’s line-up. Indonesia and Malaysia are trying to stay on the bench but will try to choose which positions to take if they have to.
On the whole, “Asian democracies sank to their lowest level in nearly a decade on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index,” according to James Crabtree of the National University of Singapore in a February 10 op-ed piece in NikkeiAsia. It can be argued that the USA has lost it’s standing as a full-fledged democracy and has become an oligarchy, as former President Jimmy Carter lamented a couple of years ago. Still, there may yet be time for Joe Biden to restore some of the priorities held by democratic nations outside the Asia-Pacific region including aggressive action on COVID-19 and climate change. If he can do that without resorting to covert authoritarianism it’ll be a major accomplishment, and a surprise.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.