Bangkok Journal Chapter 10 - Initial Conclusions True or False

A quiz, of sorts, complete with answers provided.

Or, reflection about some of the observations I’ve made in my first month – including some rethinking and perhaps revision, of some of the observations I’ve reported.

After one month in Bangkok, if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s that I’m not certain of anything.

This is true. I haven’t been here long enough to get anything other than an initial impression, especially about important things like how Thais really deal with their social issues and problems, how Buddhism really “is” here, etc. Some of my initial observations have been quite general and were/are given without any kind of research. In future journals I can now, when I have time, look at things more closely and be more responsible and thorough about the way I present my views. After all, I’ll be here for a long time (contrary to what the immigration office may or may not believe) so, in time, I can give have and pass on more in-depth knowledge and experience. That’s the plan, anyway.

Thais are friendly.

This is, in my opinion, true. I get smiles wherever I go. I don’t experience the “chattiness” that the Americans are known for when I meet Thai strangers; they do, as a rule, seem to be a bit more reserved, but the smiles feel genuine and warm. Of course, it’s hard to be chatty since I don’t speak Thai! But the few Thais that I meet when out and about who can speak English (the odd taxi driver), usually just ask where I’m from and what I do before we both become silent and just continue smiling at one another. I do feel welcome, though (when I’m not trying to renew my visa!) I certainly experience Bangkok as a “live and let live” kind of place. And, although presumptuous of me, I attribute that to Thailand’s Buddhist roots (in relation to acceptance of and compassion for others).

Thais are lazy and are indecisive.

This, since it’s a stereotype, must be false. There must be enough “truth” to the idea, though, to have it show up as a stereotype, though. Some of my more candid Thai friends have mentioned it. They talk about it among themselves (as is their right). I’m sure there are enough hard-working and decisive Thais to counter and disabuse this stereotype. Certainly the Thais I know more than in passing belie this myth. Just as there are enough genuine Americans out there to counter the stereotype that we are superficial (yes, superficial is the answer I got most often when I asked students in Germany how they thought the Americans “are”. This question – and answer – opened many a cross-cultural discussion.), then there are Thais galore who are hard-working and committed enough to call a few shots. Noraseth, the Thai I’ve observed the most (don’t know if he counts since he’s spent eight years in Germany) is extremely hard working. He can be a little passive and indecisive sometimes, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with him being Thai. I like to tease him, though, when he’s being that way. I say “you are SO Thai.” And then, responding to my arrogant, superior, self-righteous judgement, he says: “you are SO American” (yes, in addition to “superficial”, we have the reputation of being morally superior too – at least in Europe. I’m sure I’ll find out that it carries over to Asia as well. Noraseth has noticed it somehow.) Then we start pinching each other, which leads to giggling, slapping and arm-twisting. Then we end up wrestling and tickling each other across the floor until someone bangs an arm or leg on a piece of inconvenient furniture, usually seriously enough to bring pain and an end to the game. This results in each of us trying to be the first to say: “you started it and now look what’s happened. This is all your fault.” This, of course, leads to more wrestling but at this point there’s usually a chase first through the apartment that involves at least one of us leaping over couches and coffee tables. Keeps us fit, I suppose.

Thais love to sleep and can sleep anywhere.

This is true. Maybe there’s a bit of stereotype in this statement too, but I’ve noticed it enough to think of it now as a cultural characteristic. I’ve also read – in books by other language teachers in Thailand – that if you ask about hobbies in Thailand (a typical discussion question in language lessons), you’ll get the responses “sleeping” and “shopping”, both given seriously and without irony, neither of which would be considered, at least in the countries I’ve already lived in, as hobbies. (In the U.S. and Germany, you’d get responses like jogging, hiking, reading, etc.) So I tried it. Sure enough – when I ask about hobbies in my classes here, those are the top two responses! (Watching T.V. comes in third.) Maybe it’s due to the languid, tropical heat, but it’s sure fun to sleep here and it’s … allowed. Go right ahead, take a snooze. Doesn’t matter where you are, if you’ve got a few free minutes no one will bother you if you just put your head down and rest. If you’ve got enough room, then feel free to spread out and really get down.

At some of the food counters at the mall where I work (RMIT has its office there), I’ve seen the servers just put their heads down on the counters during the slow times. I’ve seen kids on their way to school sound asleep on the back of motorcycles, barely hanging on to their driving dads. I’ve seen the dads later sprawled and draped across the seats of those motorbikes when they’re parked under bridges and awnings. I’ve seen blankets spread out on little patches of grass near the mall, about 10 a.m. – coffee break time – with as many as eight or nine construction workers lying down single-file next to each other. My first reaction to that scenario was to think there’d been an earthquake or accident involving a bus or subway car. Really, I’m not used to mid-morning dormitory style sleeping on the grassy areas near a busy sidewalk unless it’s in response to some kind of disaster.

This is one habit I intend to pick up and to learn perfectly. I’m already pretty good at nodding off in taxis and I’m getting better at it while standing in rocking subway cars or lurching buses.

Nothing ever gets “done” here (in relation to social problems, etc.).

False. This is a complaint I think we all make in any country or city when things don’t get done the way WE want them to be done or as fast as we want them to be done. This is, as with the idea that Thais can be lazy and indecisive, a stereotype. I do notice a different “pace” here, but I’m not even sure if it’s a faster or slower pace than I’m used to. It certainly seems to be a “calmer” pace than in other places I’ve lived (in such a big city, no less!). Such calmness – or acceptance of things they way they are – can often be used as, or interpreted as, an excuse for inaction. But things do get done here in their way, in the Thai way, and according to the Thai schedule. I’m interested to observe more how things get done here – and which issues get addressed, both physically (infrastructure, subways, traffic, pollution, etc.) and socially (poverty, etc). There are things happening in all those areas that belie the sleepy “manjana” surface appearance of life in Bangkok.

Buddhism is different here.

Sort-of true, but I’ve presented the idea too vaguely in “Chapter 7: Ohm Alone”. The basic precepts of Buddhism are standard, of course. But there are many varied interpretations and practices of the religion, even here in Thailand. It would be a truer – and clearer – statement to say “there are many interpretations and practices of Buddhism” than it would be to say that Buddhism is “different here than in the west.” In the same way that Christianity has different denominations (Luthern, Baptist, Methodist, etc.), so does Buddhism. I’ll mention two of these as a basic example: Theravada, the type of Buddhism mostly practiced here in Thailand, and Zen, which is more often practiced in Japan and Tibet (and is also more popular and better known in the United States). Even within Theravada, there are many sub-sects. All have their own interpretation and practice of the religion; all have their own rituals. And, just as the Christian sects often disagree and politicize their differences, so is it here with Buddhism. A few months ago some different Buddhist factions in Thailand disagreed vehemently about whether Buddhism – and, then, which denomination – should be the official state religion to be included in the constitution that, at that time, was being written. (The constitution has since been ratified – without any clause about state religion.)

Buddhism, or any religion, can be as different as every person, or group of people – large or small – who interprets and practices it. Certainly some people with the same beliefs, from the same denomination, practice the religion similarly no matter what corner of the world they’re in. And, I would assume, all the denominations and personal expressions of the faith are based on the overall standards of the religion. But there will be regional differences, of course. One regional difference in Buddhist practice between Thailand and England that I’m aware of, for example is that, in England, in winter, the monks can protect their feet. In western countries, especially those in the far north, monks are allowed to wear shoes (and often socks) in the colder months. This is a practical adjustment, based on the northern climate and, while it might seem like a small thing to some of us, is actually very important. In the standard, basic practice of the religion here (setting sect to sect differences aside for the moment) monks have 237 rules and practices they follow – and wearing shoes is not allowed according to one of those rules. (Laypeople have only five basic rules or precepts. I won’t list them here. I’ll note them in a later chapter, perhaps, as I begin to explore them for myself. Those of you interested in or already practicing Buddhism probably know them already.)

I’m interested in finding out more about those types of things – and about the many different ways Buddhism is interpreted and practiced – what the different sects are here and exactly how (and why) are they different. And how are they the same (i.e. how closely do they adhere to the basics.) I’m especially interested in the differences between Theravada and Zen Buddhism. I’ll be sure to share what I discover about all that in the future.

Speaking of Buddhism (and giving vague or false impressions), I’ve learned this week the difference between monk and novice. In “Ohm Alone” I mentioned that I’d seen “monks” at various malls, shopping (some even carrying shopping bags), and that this didn’t fit with my idea of how Buddhist monks are supposed to behave (actually, it didn’t fit Noraseth’s idea of how monks are supposed to behave. I didn’t have any idea how they should behave and didn’t think twice about seeing them in malls until Nori made a comment about it). In one respect, his surprise wasn’t misplaced: monks aren’t allowed to handle money (another one of those 237 rules) so the idea of them carrying shopping bags with purchases is a bit off. But those orange-robed men we saw were probably only novices. So why should that make a difference regarding the precept of handling money?

Men in Thailand under the age of twenty, especially teenagers, often ordain as novices, either of their own volition or at the urging of their families, simply to escape poverty and to receive free accommodation, food and education. This is one area in which the Buddhist temples very nicely substitute as social services agencies. At age twenty a novice must decide whether to ordain fully as a monk or to disrobe. Only a very, very small minority choose to become monks. The rest of them return to normal life, taking what they’ve learned as novices with them out into the world.

Novices don’t have as many rules as the monks. To be specific, novices have 75 training rules including ten rules that can result in expulsion if not followed (including taking life, taking what is not given, being unchaste, taking intoxicants, holding wrong views). Then come five “heavy penalty offences for gross misconduct”, all of which revolve around incorrect sexual behaviour (e.g. intentional emission of semen except in a dream, addressing a woman with lewd words or attempting to persuade her to have sexual intercourse, acting as a go between for a man and woman for any matter concerned with their personal relationship, etc. No marriage counselling here!). Then there are ten “light penalty offences” including eating at the wrong time, dancing, singing taking part in or attending shows, using flowers, perfumes or cosmetics to adorn the body, using luxurious couches beds or seats, etc. In addition, novices should uphold the Thai monastic and cultural traditions (e.g. duck or lower the head when passing in front of an image of the Buddha, never sit higher than a monk, etc. These are non-penalty items that are just considered rude or inappropriate.) So much to remember! And, human nature being what it is, how are teenage boys able to live up to such ideals!

I’m getting all this from “Little Angels” (Phra Peter Pannapadipo, Arrow Books 2005), by the way, which offers a few case histories of some of these boys who have ordained as novices. A lot of the stories, told in their own voices, discuss how they individually interpret their ordination and practice their precepts. Some admit that it’s a struggle to be good novices, but that they try hard to live according to their vows, no matter the reason for their ordination. To quote the author, “Like the five precepts of Buddhist lay people, or the 227 of the monks, the ten novice precepts (I assume his means the “ten expulsion offences” here) should not be understood or practiced at face value only.” And in the stories, one notices that the boys take their vows seriously even if they were forced by their family to ordain. But, being somewhat less committed, perhaps, than someone answering a religious “call”, the novices are known to be “naughty” now and then and this is, within reason, somewhat accepted (especially in relation to the “light penalty offences”). Growing boys often need to eat more and/or at night so some novices do this on the QT. If caught eating at night, they often go unpunished. But, oh, not when they play soccer (or climb trees)! This isn’t as justifiable as eating to feed a growing body, is considered to be undignified for someone who wears the robes, so they usually get told to stop if found out (even if they are doing it out of public view). Maybe they get a little lecture, too.

I suspect some novices end up at malls buying things, as well. Now that I know the difference between monk and novice, and the level of commitment involved in being one or the other (and remembering how young the robed men were that I saw out shopping), I think I probably saw novices out being naughty that day a few weeks back, rather than monks, as I’d assumed. Yes, the novices should still follow their precepts, as quoted and noted above. When they don’t, they can and often do give the religion a bad image. Add to that the few real scandals involving a few fully ordained monks that occurred here in Thailand in the past three years or so and you have a real public relations nightmare. The public, who support the monks with their food donations for alms, reacted quite negatively to these scandals and the damage is still being repaired, according to articles in the local papers. The monks are, after all, supposed to serve the community that supports them and to practice their precepts as well as they can to set a proper example for the lay people. They need to be beyond reproach. So even a scandal involving a handful of monks has a really big impact on how the entire organization (in this case, all monks and novices) is viewed. But novices can be forgiven a bit – even by their own monk teachers – for small infractions on the precepts, especially the light penalty offences.

All that aside, though, I got to learn a very simple lesson for and about myself: don’t assume something to be a certain way without researching it a little more in depth. Find out who the different people are who wear orange robes before you assume they’re all monks! It was by chance that I happened to pick up and read “Little Angels”. Or perhaps it wasn’t by chance. I don’t believe in “accidents”, so I’m sure this book came my way to cause me to notice the way I often incorrectly jump to conclusions. Important lesson – and important for me to share it with anyone who’s read my earlier assumptions!

Okay, I’m all noviced out now and am sure you are too. Let’s get back to the “quiz”:

Things are now becoming routine for me in my new life in Bangkok.

False. I may have regular things I do on a daily basis, like shower and commute, work at my part-time job, prepare to begin my full-time job. And in my travels now I end up seeing the same streets and places every day (so I know when a taxi driver takes a wrong turn. When that happens and I’m alone, the result is lots of hand waving and pointing and few broken words from both participants in both languages.) We have favourite food stands we buy from and usual stores we shop at. But nothing feels routine. Regular, yes. Time consuming, of course. Repetitious, sometimes. My life is becoming full, busy, perhaps even hectic. Those words can be used to describe the way things are heading for me at the moment. But not routine. Routine, to me, has a bit of “dull” mixed into the meaning somehow. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about my new life here in Bangkok is dull!

Once I begin my full-time job, I imagine I’ll have less time to write my Bangkok Journal chapters (so look for updates less often – but more pics on a regular basis!) I certainly don’t see myself writing chapters consisting of me telling you only that I went to work and taught today, how long the commute in both directions was and whether or not I used taxi, subway or sky-train! I can, though, see myself telling you about anything interesting I might observe along the way or things I might learn from my students. As in Germany, I expect they will be the ones to really give some insight into the culture, especially as cultural differences tend to come up as a discussion topic often in my classroom. And, of course, I plan to continue to find out about some of the things I’ve written about in this chapter and to continually report on same.

And I haven’t even really buckled down and given my full attention to learning the language yet either! This is the next project. So excuse me if I spend more time with my Thai training than I do writing the journal. At least Ricky will be pleased that, while I won’t shut up completely, I will have at least slowed down. Rather than another ten chapters in October (it amazes me when I check the site that I’ve written ten chapters in a little more than a month), my plan is to update pics constantly and add a new chapter every month, once a month in the future from now on. So check on-line accordingly. I won’t send out my advertisement-like announcements anymore (unless you write and tell me that they haven’t annoyed you and that you want to know when something new is posted).

I thank all of you for past, present and continued reading – and for writing and sharing your own insights, giving comments and feedback. Please don’t stop!

Until next time, then.

Bangkok, 5 October 2007