Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"How I Came to the USA"



Going back, again, to the writings of my wife, when she was first learning English in the United States. I've added photos from that time:


How I Came to the USA -- by Thiphawan Gault-Williams


One day I picked up a Thai newspaper. I saw an ad about seeing a man from outside Thailand to marry to be friends. I went to the agency because everything was almost for free except for translating the letter from English to Thai and from Thai to English. That cost about $4 for two pages.

At first they took my picture and then my address. They sent my picture and address to another agency called Thai American Service in the USA. They posted my picture on the Internet and then sold my address.

  
I had a couple of people write letters to me but it didn't work well because I didn't have much money to play for translating their letters. It took me a couple of months before I found the right one.

In June 1999 I got a letter from Malcolm, who is my husband now. We wrote to each other for about four months. He decided to visit me around my 28th birthday in October 1999.


After we had spent a couple of days together he seemed to be nice to me and we got along very well. He wanted to visit my family in my hometown in northeast Thailand. At first I couldn't say yes, because in my village if you bring a guy with you, people will think you are married, no matter yes or no.


  
I asked him to marry me in a couple of days if he wanted to meet my family. I don't know how I asked him to marry me either because it was the first time we had met.  At that time my English was so poor, but I did ask him for another thing. It was to pay a dowry for marrying me. He paid a dowry of about $7,000 for marrying me.

  
He visited me a couple of times and then we got married on March 23, 2000 in my hometown. On March 31, 2000 I got a visa to come to the United States. On April 4, 2000 I left Thailand. My trip was so long. It took me a day of sitting on the plane. It seemed to be an adventure for me because I came with a man I only saw a couple of times and only two weeks each time. Many people in Thailand talked about if you went outside the country with someone at first you had to be careful because it might be very dangerous. No matter what, I trusted him a lot.

My first day n the USA was startling. LAX was so big to me and I didn't understand the language very well. Most people spoke English, but I spoke Thai. That is how my new life in the USA began.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Boon Pakwet, 2017

Considered more as a weekend of partying and a warm-up to the Thai New Year (Songkran), Boon Pakwet (aka Boon Pahwet) is traditionally meant to bless and pray for the upcoming rice growing season and its successful outcome. It is not a Buddhist observance, per se, although it does have Buddhist trappings. When it’s prayer time, monks are there to lead the ceremonies, for sure.

Village Temple gate built with funds raised during Boon Pakwet 2012.

The first day is marked by extreme alcohol consumption, a march through the village and out to nearby fields, followed by prayers and chants. Afterwards, people break up but the drinking continues in smaller groups.

Second day, food booths are organized at the village temple (non-Kamattan); live Thai karaoke on stage is performed along with impromptu dancing. Most importantly, visiting delegations from villages around the area are met and their donations in the form of money trees are accepted. Village elders count the money and Buddhist monks deliver the blessings.

Counting the donations and receiving blessings.

A lot of people look like they’re drinking soda, but the plastic bottles usually contain rice whiskey (lao khao) or rice wine. Many people get “very mao” -- “mao mak.” If the temple was a Forest Tradition temple, there’s no way people would drink on the grounds -- even disguised.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Winter 2016/2017

Southeast Asia’s winters go from December through February and then rapidly ramp up in temperature. March begins summer -- the hottest time of the year (April-June). There is no spring season as many people used to four seasons would expect.

This winter, we lived out at the farm for the first time. I loved it, as I knew I would -- especially the clear skies that only occur at this time of year. To my surprise and pleasure, my wife not only enjoyed it, too, but got into it. For a year and more, she’s planted fruit trees and vegetables along the perimeter of our dirt pad, elevated from the surrounding rice paddies. Every day she irrigates and likes it.


Unfortunately, I got sick again this winter for a two-month period, just like last year (2015/2016). It was another bout with the flu followed up with a bronchial infection. Next winter, I will try flu shots to see if that helps. This pattern of annually being sick for one-sixth of the year -- at my age (68) -- can be dangerous.

Steaming sticky rice in the early morn.

The season was a transition period, as we learned what we needed to be comfortable out at our larger of two farms.

Take our bed for instance. The first few years of my retirement, we slept upstairs at our village house (ban how) on the floor on traditional Isaan mats -- foldable squares filled with a local organic “cotton” that grows from large pods on a certain type of tree. This is stuffed inside sewn squares of fabric. The ones we slept on had been stuffed and sewn up by Thip’s mother years ago.

It was OK, but lumpy and the two sets of pads would separate (Thip’s and mine), so there would always be a low spot in between us. I finally looped the two pads together with string which helped.

Later on, we elevated our bed so we were off the floor and sleeping mostly downstairs for convenience. Still, the mats were lumpy.

This winter, we didn’t have enough mats to keep both our bed in the village and the one out at the farm, so we were forced to improve the situation. I mean, how long should one put up with an uncomfortable bed, no matter where it is? So, Thip bought two slabs of two-inch thick latex inside cotton slips. One slab went to the village house and the other one to Ban Nah (farm house). They are great; no rubber smell and very firm.

Temple pool between our farm and the government road.

Related:



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Buddhist But Not Exactly

Whenever I’m asked about my religion, I tell people I am Buddhist. People in our village and temple now assume it; my wife has for some time. In reading about our lives here in Northeastern Thailand -- especially how thoroughly integrated into the daily lives of our Kamattan monks and temple that we are -- I’m pretty sure you would think so, too.

Braided fragrant flower buds offered to our monks in respect.


Yet, despite the fact that I have practiced elements of Buddhism since slightly before my wife was born 45 years ago, and well before her father got serious about the family religion, I no longer consider myself much of a Buddhist -- but, a little.

When I was much younger, I used to say “I’m not a very good Christian.” Now, I tell myself “I’m not a very good Buddhist.”

I grew up a Methodist. I was first introduced to Buddhism in 1967, while in my freshman year in college, though the writings of Jack Kerouac who greatly influenced me as a writer. Soon afterward, I got interested in Zen Buddhism and for a long time considered myself a Zen Buddhist. My sons always thought I was just an Athiest.

When I met my wife three decades later, I adopted her practice, which is the Forest Tradition (Kamattan) of Thai Buddhism.

So, why do I no longer consider myself much of a Buddhist -- Kamattan or some other form? I guess it boils down to me being like a guy shopping in a market when it comes to religion. I’ll buy what I feel I need and I’m very selective. Some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism I definitely don’t subscribe to (i.e. reincarnation). As for the five precepts of Buddhism (not harming living things; not taking what is not given [stealing], sexual misconduct, lying or gossip; and not taking intoxicating substances like drugs and alcohol), I only hit about three out of five of those. I still drink beer and I trap rats on a regular basis, killing mosquitoes on sight.

Besides, there are too many other rules to follow in Buddhism. I don’t know half of them and forget much of the half I remember. Heck, as a boy I was challenged just trying to remember the Ten Commandments. Today, I’m glad to report that I’m meeting about seven out of ten of those.

For me, I’ve just selected what I’ve felt I needed and what made sense to me. I’m fine with anyone following a different path. I really believe whatever works for you is the best religion to have. My religion probably defies a label and takes elements from not only Buddhism and Christianity, but also Native American -- which are really the only three religions I feel I know something about.

My religion -- such as it is -- is boiled down to this: Our lives now, as animals on this planet we call Earth, is the only consciousness we will ever know. This is it. Make the most of it.

Make the most of it by being happy with best intent, best thought, best words and best actions (Buddha’s Four Noble Truths).

Do your utmost to help all living creatures. Live the life you will be proud to die by.


Even as simple as it is, “my religion” is a very difficult religion to practice. It makes sense to me though and challenges me to “up my game” -- actively trying to get better and be a better human being every single day.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 3

The worst thing about the “honeymoon” period being over for me is that I’m not that thrilled to be around Thai people as much as I was my first five years here. This is causing me to be -- not reclusive, but less engaged and more private.

Our farmhouse -- "Bann Nah" -- night time.

Now that we’re based out on the farm, being removed from “the action” is not difficult. Yet, I’m always of the mindset when I’m on the move of where others are that I don’t want to run into. Often, my decisions on where I will be at a given time of day takes into account where others may be.

Thip trimming old lemon grass for replanting.

I also do the best I can to “be available and unavailable at will” -- mostly available, but aspire to being unavailable. The thing is, if you know my schedule, you know where to find me. So, that’s another thing I do: I purposely try to break my routines so I’m not so predictable. This is difficult to do especially in late afternoons when everyone knows I like to have a few beers at end-of-day.

Lowering sun backlighting our stairs.

I now understand why most Falangs build substantial walls and gates around their property. I used to make fun of the idea, reasoning that if you wall yourself in, how are you going to be an active part of the community? I now realize that activity comes from how often you pass the gate.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 2

About a third of the negative incidents I’ve experienced in five years in the village have involved family and these have usually been land-related. The size of these incidents have been much larger than other incidents that have occurred. Family problems are lots more of a problem than neighbors just stealing your bananas or mangoes.


Thip's father and brothers and cousin, February 2017.


Although Thip and I gave away a couple of acres of very valuable property to our temple (increasing the family boon and improving its karma), helped family members out of financial difficulties, sold land for cheap to family members and let other family members live on our smaller farm rent-free (for over 10 years) -- very little of this is really appreciated; at least not what I would consider appreciation.

Of course, Lungpaw Boon Long is an exception to this. He values the help we gave him with the donation of land for the chedi (stuppa) and has helped us numerous times before and since -- maybe not as payback, but you have to figure het boon, die boon (give good, get good) has a part to play in all this.

However, the rest of our family -- and in particular, the immediate family: Thip’s siblings and father -- really are not happy unless we’re continually giving them something more.

Although I think this is pretty common among humans, I feel it is acute with our Thai family. Part of the problem, of course, is what my wife and I created. For a decade and more, when both Thip and I were working in the United States, thousands of dollars were sent back to family in forms of support (mostly to parents and daughter) and general assistance (to brothers and sister). So, the family got used to that.

I don’t think they ever have fully understood that now that I’m retired and Thip and I are living on one low fixed income, we cannot help them out as much as we used to.

Pretty much, you can figure when a family member is grumpy, there’s a good chance it’s because we haven’t given them something recently. This goes for even the smallest thing. I no longer complain to my wife when she buys food for family members or two of one thing when all she needs is the one. In a way, she is “greasing the wheels” and if that’s going to keep her family happy, so be it.

For bigger things, I’ve learned not to just give what is requested. I think about it and then give with conditions. Also, if it is something like an interest-free loan, I won’t give it unless I personally and privately feel like I don’t need the money if it isn’t paid back.

In writing about the incidents that happen and the problems my wife and I have with just trying to be good village and family members, you might get the impression that Isaan people are not good people. That is not the case. One reason I like being in the Isaan is because I feel I can trust Isaan people and they certainly look after me quite often.

With incidents and why the “honeymoon’s over,” it’s more an issue of being in and amongst simple country people who have obviously not grown up in the Western Tradition. Their way of thinking is far different than my own; and different than Westerners, in general.

In Falang forums, the subject of Thai intelligence is often discussed and I think many expats miss the real issue. It’s not that Thai people are not smart, it’s just that many are not well educated and those that are have not been educated in the Western Tradition.

Famous surfer Tom Blake had an expression that I keep in mind often, not just here in Southeast Asia, but wherever I am:

“They’re doing the best with what they’ve got.”


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 1

Five years after retiring to the village where my wife was born and grew up, the “honeymoon” is definitely over. I’m not talking about my wife’s and mine, which amazingly continues! I’m talking about my relationship with villagers and family.

Main village intersection, looking from within Nung's store, where I buy beer and get my hair cut. My motorcycle in front. Our village house is two houses beyond the white one.


When I first arrived, I was warmly welcomed by everyone, even my known adversaries. Over time, though, people’s enthusiasm for me and me for them has waned. I guess it’s natural.

But, there have been some incidents that have undoubtedly sped the process along.

Interestingly, most of the incidents have involved land in one way or another. About a third have involved family or family and land.

One that did not involve land was the time when I still had my samlor (tuk-tuk). I was on my weekly run to stock up on beer in the next village over (Ban Pak Wet). Leaving the store, I did a U-turn not far from the store’s front. A motorcycle rider and girl friend from our village saw my late into the turn and dumped her bike. She and her friend were shook-up, but OK and so was the motorcycle except for some scratches. Well, of course, she thought it was my fault despite the fact that she has only one eye and was going too fast and the store banner blocked part of the road. To her credit, though, after a while she put it behind her and didn’t even ask me to pay for scratch repair. At a recent village party, she even wanted me to dance with her and was happy when I did. But, you know the major damage was the talk that went around about me and my driving (which is absolutely better than most everyone).

Other “stories that go on” -- while they may have involved relatives -- I do not classify as “family incidents.” Some examples:

· At our village house, our neighbor and relative next door arranging her gray water line from the bathroom so it seeps onto our property. I caused a stink about that. It still continues to flow.
· Same neighbor likes to gamble and I have complained about her gambling friends parking on our property so they wouldn’t look like they were over gambling at her place. One day the police in plain clothes come by and ask where the owners of the motorcycles are. I point next door and the gamblers are busted. I didn’t gain any friends with that, but I wasn’t about to lie to the police.
· First year I was here, I heard a big party going on and went to investigate. One of the larger families in the village was having a New Year’s party. I was invited in and stayed for a little while. Later, I found out that the family collected money from all family members to attend and some did not take kindly to my “crashing” the party.
· Running kids out of our backyard.
· Running guys hunting lizards out of our back yard.
· Having to put up fences to keep human traffic from flowing thru our back yard.
· Building a bamboo fence from the bamboo our neighbor (Gam Nan, the head of the village) lets fall onto our property.
· Chasing away people stealing our mangoes in the front yard.
· Yelling at (which you don’t do in SE Asia) cow herders who don’t control their animals well enough to keep them from getting on your property -- cows love mangoes!
· Falling asleep one night -- after too many beers -- on the front patio. Scandalous, I tell you!

There are more, but these are the ones that come quickly to mind and just give you an idea of the kinds of things that “go on” in a Thai village. Interestingly, many of these problems were solved by Thip and I just moving out to the farm. I’m still around looking after the house and property in the village, but neither one of us is around long enough to have “stuff go on.”