Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Goings On

In our last post, I promised I'd update with pictures of some of the things we've done lately. 

Young Conservationists Camp
A few months ago, a PCV colleague at Khon Kaen University and I went to another volunteer's site to participate in a Young Conservationists Camp that her local government office was hosting. There were about 40 high school students who participated, and we went to a national park for the weekend. The national park staff were fantastic, leading the students in songs and games, and talking to them about the importance of maintaining the forest, the national parks, and the environment. They talked a lot about illegal logging of teak and rosewood, which is currently the most expensive wood in the world, and in high demand in China, apparently. It's a rapidly disappearing species because of the profit it draws, and this national park is home to many hundred or more year old trees, which are more or less always in danger from those who come under cover of night to get as much precious wood as they can. On the road leading away from the community, there's a checkpoint where people are apprehended nearly everyday trying to sneak truckloads of the wood out of the protected area. 


Above, I'm with the director of the national park, and we are planting a rosewood sapling. It was one of about 50 that got planted that day. The kids worked in groups to clear the ground and plant these trees, early on the second day of the camp.


After planting the trees, we conducted a buat bpa or forest ordination, in which a monk came and performed an ordination ritual for the trees. The ordination is a kind of transmutation ceremony, one which transforms the trees into pra or monks. This very Thai conservationist technique takes advantage of the deeply held Buddhist beliefs of most of the Thai population - no Thai Buddhist would dare to cut down a monk.



The monk and the park director tie monk's robes around the trunk of a rosewood tree. Together, the group of students and park staff ordained (and thus protect) around 15 trees. 



Meechai's Bamboo School Comes to KKU
Some time after the ordination of the trees, I was lucky to be able to attend a presentation at the university by Meechai Viravaidya, who is somewhat of a legend in Thailand (and in public health circles) for his extremely successful campaigns to make condoms and birth control available to women and families throughout rural Thailand. His efforts are credited for helping to reduce the birthrate among Thai families from around 7 to around 2, in just over a generation. Now, after a varied and impressive career that has included the establishment of several resorts in his "Cabbages and Condoms" chain, he runs a school which is partly funded by proceeds from Cabbages and Condoms enterprises. He came to KKU to present about his school, where a lot of the focus is on teaching the students entrepreneurial and business skills, and where, in order to do so, the students take a lot of the responsibility of running the school - right down to interviewing prospective teachers!

When I tried to talk to him after his talk, he politely waved me off and told me to talk to his students instead. "They run the school," he said. Their English was excellent, too. This is me with Mot, a senior in high school who wants to go study in Germany.




ASEAN is coming!
Getting ready for the opening of the AEC, or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community, which is set for next year, is a big focus of many organizations in Thailand. Somehow I ended up attending this ASEAN day, sponsored by the international college at the university, and got to see some performances by a few of the international students who attend KKU.


Here are the Burmese women from Myanmar - my friend Rody is on the far right.


Below are the women from Cambodia. 


There were also performances by the group of students from Vietnam, and the students also sat on a panel to answer questions about their life in Thailand. Thai students who had studied or done internships abroad as part of their educational requirements also participated in the panel discussion; it is fascinating to see the mix of cultural perspectives, and to imagine the way that this region will change and develop over the decade or so after the AEC actually becomes a reality. For many Thais, the opening of the AEC is scary - work permits and student visas will be easier to obtain, allowing citizens of all ASEAN member countries to attend school and work abroad much more easily than they can now. The working language of ASEAN is English, and that will be a hurdle to overcome in the next several years. Although many signs proclaim that Thailand or various institutions are "ready for ASEAN" there is still a great deal of (warranted) anxiety about what next year will bring. 

Wilderness
We spent several days in Khao Yai National Park, where we did a wildlife tour and a "trek" in which we encountered enough creatures to make it a worthwhile getaway. 

Bats

Hills

Butterflies

Sweaty travelers

Elephants

On the home front
And now, for several weeks, we have been laying low at home. Our most exciting adventures usually involve the song taew, or pick up truck with two benches in the back, so I thought I'd get a picture of that in here.

Song Taew: Our Chariot

And it's always a good day when we come home with peanuts and coconut oil from the local market.

Wan Kru (Teacher's Day)
Laying low doesn't always mean skipping out on cultural activities. Just last week was the annual Wan Kru, or Teacher's Day. Teachers are afforded extremely high respect in Thai culture, and students honor their teachers by presenting them gifts of jasmine garlands or other intricate symbolic offerings made from flowers and banana leaves, much like the kratongs that are made on Loy Kratong.

For this teacher's day, the students worked in groups based on their majors to create the offerings for the teachers. This one, below, by the Construction Management students, was particularly endearing. 


And of course, since I am kind of like a teacher, even though I'm totally not a teacher, I was given this hilarious robe to wear to participate in the ceremony, which involved twenty instructors sitting in chairs on a stage while various representatives from the student body came up and offered the aforementioned kratongs to us, kneeling and then prostrating themselves before in a display of total deference that is definitely somewhat unnerving, but also a radical illustration of just how important teachers are considered to be here. Even our dean, whose mentor was a former dean at the college who stays on in a Professor Emeritus capacity, later knelt before him and presented him with a small garland of jasmine, and wai-ed to him in a gesture of deep respect.


The gown, for the record, is like a very fine mesh, and the sleeves were at least 3 inches past my fingertips, hence the odd posture. It's a good thing I wore heels that day, or I don't know what would have happened!

I'll leave it at that, with this especially awkward picture of me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Citizenship

Dear Friends, Family, and Fellow Americans (countrymen has a better ring, but that's just so.... archaic):

It's been a while since we've updated this blog, and there are a number of reasons for that.

First, the whiny reasons: We now work in an office, and we don't do as much "cultural" or "interesting" stuff as we used to. We are more used to some of the things that used to make for amusing and dramatic tales of life abroad (like ants), and so we don't think to write about them anymore. Now, since those whiny reasons are out of the way, here are some of the deeper reasons that I, for one, haven't written.

1) There was a coup. And I wasn't sure how I felt about that, or how to write about it, in a public forum, on the internet, while living (as we still do) in a military controlled state.
2) My work this year is specifically focused anti-corruption and integrity education, and that has ripples into democracy education, citizenship rights promotion, and various other things that are harder to understand in a cross-cultural context, harder to write about and make exciting than the ups and downs of life in a rural village, and well, see 1, above.
3) For a while, the world has been somewhat ugly, and to be honest, that gets me down and makes it hard to write about any of the ups, or downs, or funnies that I experience in my life abroad.

I promise that I have a lot of pictures and a lot of fun things that I want to write about and share with you. But right now, I have to say, America's pretty ugly, too. And I have just a few things to say to Americans, a few reminders, if you will. (Reminders I hope to keep in mind, myself, for the rest of my life.)

On citizenship: Americans, we live in a wonderful, incredible country, founded on lofty ideals of equality and citizen participation. And it is the participate of our diverse citizenry that makes our country great, and makes our country strong.

I don't want to go on a long diatribe about anything right now. I just want to say - Americans, you are citizens of a great country. But it cannot be a great country if you do not participate in making it great. Protests. Letters to your local and state representatives. Showing up to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Going to your neighborhood meetings. And protecting your rights to assembly, free speech, due process, and the right to live in the kind of community that is reasonable, respectful, and reflects the values that you hold dear. Participate, debate, respect.

Watching the escalation of protests in Ferguson has been unsettling and scary for me, and is the real reason I feel like I have to write something to America now. Not only do we have the issue of white police officers shooting an unarmed black men and a terribly inept official response - a narrative that has repeated itself far too many times in far too many places - but the show of military force by the police is terrifying. We should not be a country in which the conflict of ideas and the rightful demonstration of anger by citizens becomes a war between the state and those citizens. The show of force is itself a kind of violence wrought against those who would speak out against the state. The raising of guns against citizens, even those who are shouting in protest, is itself a violence. It is a threat, an attempt to suppress. In other countries, we condemn this kind of violence against citizens. We level sanctions and travel warnings when unrest like this occurs. We call for debate. We call for civil engagement. We call for democracy.

We cannot call for democracy elsewhere until we participate in it, until we demand that our government institutions protect our rights within our own democracy, and until we reject the militarization of the force that is supposed to protect us and serve us.

Dear Americans, please remember that you make America. But you don't make it great if you don't speak up and demand that America be the place that you want it to be. I don't want to be the citizen of a country that has tanks in the streets and allows snipers to train their rifles on citizens, no matter how angry those citizens are.



An updated note: A friend of mine posted something on Facebook, something that said, "Stop Blaming the Police." While the GIF that's been going around has a number of statistics that didn't impress me much, I was reminded to step back into my understanding of the situation and look deeper. Ah - the virtues of Facebook debate: Thank you, friend. Later, I heard an interview with Anna Deveare Smith, a playwright who took the tragedy of the Rodney King riots, and wrestled with them in a one-woman show. On Ferguson, she reminded us that "the cops are on the front line, and when these explosions happen, they become the main characters. But we are all involved in this. ... They are acting out the drama - the cop and the kid - for all of us while we sit back and watch." Indeed. We are all involved in this. So don't blame the police. Don't blame "the system." Don't blame the man. Activate your own involvement - and we can start making changes. Participate. Debate. Respect. Change.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Update

Well, things went from martial law to military coup. Nevertheless, we are safe. We are in contact with Peace Corps staff and are far from any unrest.

What we know is only as much as the international media are reporting and what we can find online. We have been advised to stay at our sites and not travel, and obviously to obey the new curfew that went into effect last night.

If there are any serious updates to provide, we'll do so. But for now, just know that we are safe and sound and fascinated to be here at this time in Thailand's history.


Monday, May 5, 2014

On Giving Thanks

Last month there came a day that would have been the official end of our 27 month commitment to Peace Corps Thailand. On that day we stayed up all night doing laundry and packing, and then at first light piled ourselves into a taxi, and then onto a plane, for what turned out to be around 36 hours in total transit door-to-door from Bangkok to New Orleans.

Fortunately, that particular day wasn't how we marked the end of our tour of service. Instead, we joined the fresh-faced, newly minted Peace Corps Trainees in their Swearing-In Ceremony. Starting their journey as we finished ours, they stood and raised their hands to swear the oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and to defend it against all foes, foreign and domestic. Those of us who made it to the end sat in silence and watched and listened, reflecting on all of the moments and the memories that comprise our two years of Peace Corps service. While the U.S. ambassador to Thailand was ill and couldn't make her scheduled speech, we were lucky, truly lucky, to have the Deputy Chief of Mission, W. Patrick Murphy, speak in her stead. Not only is he a gifted speaker, he is also a genuinely warm human being and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. So, needless to say, he had a few relevant things to say on that day. I only remember one, however.

When you get back to America, he said, when you step off the plane in your "Peace Corps uniform" (he smirked, and so did we), no one will thank you. No one will thank you for your service, even though they should, because what you do, he said, is invaluable. So let me say it, on behalf of America, on behalf of everyone, "Thank you for your service."

Well, that was nice, I thought, that he thanked us. But what stuck with me was a feeling of needing to steel myself against the possibility that no one else would say it. No one will thank you. It almost became a mantra, it lodged so forcefully into my subconscious expectations of what the month long home-leave would be like. I didn't feel negatively about it, merely strengthened by the warning and thus ready to face the inevitable disappointment when neither gratitude nor interest regarding my two years away was particularly forthcoming from others.

***

On maybe the second or third day in New Orleans, we made the somewhat questionable decision of going out for tacos with my Dad and step-mom, who had graciously opened their home to us for a week, and also let us borrow their cars, spend quite a bit of their money on delicious food, and generally relax and recover from jetlag in peace and quiet.

At any rate, after we'd ordered appetizers from the busser who set down our four ice waters, the platinum-blonde, fifty-something waitress came over to the table balancing a giant tray of tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, and limes between her shoulder and palm. As she swirled the tray down from her shoulder onto the tray stand she'd set up with her other hand, she greeted us, and my father, never one to miss an opportunity to turn a stranger into a familiar, promptly let her know that he was here tonight with his daughter and her husband, who'd just returned from serving two years in the Peace Corps in Thailand. With the now halved avocado turned upward in one palm, a spoon poised to scoop it's meaty flesh out to begin the ritual of table-side guacamole (which I could not wait to eat, my mouth already salivating as my brain conjured up the heavenly taste of fresh, ripe avocado and lime), she stopped suddenly, and looked directly, deliberately, at us.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for what ya'll are doing over there. Thank you." She said it as sincerely as I have ever heard anyone say anything.

My mouth stopped watering and my eyes immediately started. Deborah, or Tammy, or Kathy, or Dolores - she could have been any of those - had stopped my heart in an instant. I briefly wondered if she had misheard my father and thought we were in a branch of the military, but then decided that a) that was cynical and rude of me to think and that b) I didn't really care anyway.

Later I wanted to kick myself for not asking her what her connection to Peace Corps was, or why she had so emphatically thanked us for our service. But it didn't really matter. It doesn't. I will cherish that moment as though it were preserved under a glass case, frozen in time, forever.

***

Ultimately, that brief encounter colored my experience at home: gratitude, perhaps, must be at the center of all we do, or it's easy to start taking everything for granted.

For over two years, we had been enveloped in the kindness and generosity of Thais, who have accepted us, and loved us, and many, many times, simply shaken their heads at us and let us do something they thought was crazy. In coming back home, I was overwhelmed with kindness, too. From our first week in New Orleans, our weeks in Albuquerque, and even during our jaunt in Tokyo, and our return to Bangkok, I was shocked and heartened to discover that kindness, and love, and generosity are alive and well all over the globe.

To our friends and family, all I can say, is thank you. For the use of your cars, your extra beds, your phones, your homes, your old clothes, your shoulders, your ears, your time, your music, your food, your arms, and most of all, your beautiful, beautiful hearts: thank you.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the way

As usually happens, all the best intentions of writing in order to keep track of the whirlwind were dashed within it instead.

Tonight is our last night in Thailand, signalling the end of 27 long months as Peace Corps volunteers in our small village in Sukhothai province. Tomorrow morning, we'll find ourselves 30,000 feet above the country that has hosted us, fed us, loved us, and schooled us for the past two plus years.

It is difficult to say anything about how this feels, let alone attempt to remark on it in an accurate and meaningful way.

I am as confused as when we started this journey, and just as hopeful and scared, too. There is nothing to do but put one foot forward in front of the other and see where the path leads. And so we go on. On the way to somewhere.




Thursday, February 6, 2014

Calling B*llsh*t (Updated)

At least in my level of tolerance for public confrontation, I’ve mellowed out quite a bit in the last years. So, it feels a little out of my current character, but I have to call bullshit on this article: The Mia Noi or Minor Wife in Thai Culture: Having a Mistress in Thailand is Actually Quite Common (Don't click yet; I posted the link a little further down so you can read it when I want you to.)

This title, which is true, is of an article that was posted on facebook by a friend and fellow Thailand PCV and it showed up in my newsfeed a couple of days ago. The link was accompanied by her assessment, “I absolutely don't agree with this woman but this article is worth a read.” Since I was on a facebook / Internet binge (i.e., between classes with nothing to do except pretend to study for that Stats MOOC I signed up for), I clicked the link. In a minute, I’ll tell you to do the same, but first, a brief note:

As anyone who writes about culture knows – and as anyone who has lived in a culture, especially one so diametrically opposed to their own has come to understand relatively quickly – representing, discussing, critiquing, and dissecting cultures other than our own is very tricky territory. As I see it, whether we engage with other cultures as peripheral observers, participant observers, community members, academics, journalists, or ex-pats, there are three major mistakes we can make, any of which severely curtailing our ability to represent the culture to others who don’t experience it like we do.

The first mistake is simply that of complete misunderstanding. There is always the possibility that we just completely don’t get something that’s going on. It can happen if we don’t have the language, miss the underlying cultural, religious, or personal significance of a moment or a monument. It can happen if we get our research wrong, misunderstand our history, or misinterpret our history. These mistakes can be great or small in magnitude, but they stem from a fundamental misalignment of our interpretation with the reality of the culture or practice that we’re trying to assess. Oops. In my own case, I’ve realized t hat more time in the culture helps to correct and shed light on earlier misunderstandings and egregious mischaracterizations.

The second mistake happens when we forget that we’re wearing our own cultural lenses, when we can’t put aside our biases, and when we simply judge an aspect of a culture to be WRONG because it doesn’t measure up to the morals or standards that we take for granted from our own culture.

The third mistake happens when we blissfully accept that just because a cultural practice exists, we shouldn’t judge it, and so it must therefore be good or RIGHT and acceptable.

Assuming that the first type of mistake is an honest mistake that we might all make, but that vigilance, keeping an open mind, heart, eyes, and ears, will help mitigate, most writers and others who study culture thus need to find a way to walk a middle path between the first and second mistakes, to find their way between absolute absolutism and absolute relativism, if you will. It is a difficult line to walk; how can you criticize a culture objectively, without your own biases getting in the way? Well, you can’t. But you can acknowledge your biases and the framework within which you’re working. And you can realize that making principled objections to certain cultural practices is a necessary step in progressing toward a world that is more equal, more just, and more peaceful.

So back to that link: The Mia Noi or Minor Wife in Thai Culture: Having a Mistress in Thailand is Actually Quite Common Go ahead. Read it. I’ll be here when you get back.

Back? You thought it was bullshit, right? Okay, great. Oh wait, you just thought it was interesting and neat to learn about another culture? Please read on.

The author of this piece seems to me to be a little far into the cultural relativism territory: Because it’s been around in Thai society for a long time, because some people think it’s either inevitable or acceptable, the author finds a way to normalize the “mia noi” or “minor wife” that is so common in this culture, even going so far as to call the widespread practice of men taking mistresses a “win-win” for everyone.

I am a liberal. A progressive, feminist liberal. I tend to agree with what another friend commented in response to this link, that I don’t have general a problem with any of the consensual, safe relationships into which adults enter knowingly and of their own free will. But my relatively open view toward adult sexual relationships is based on a couple of assumptions: that those relationships should be mutually beneficial, that those relationships should be consented to by all parties, that those relationships should be safe, and especially that they are not based on lopsided power dynamics and unequal social status.

Unfortunately, in Thailand, the mia noi relationship is a social institution that generally tends to preserve unequal gender dynamics and the greater power of men within familial and social relationships. Let’s just say that the acceptability of mistresses isn’t the product of a liberal progressive sexual revolution that allows men and women in equal numbers and with equal freedom to explore their own sexuality and identities in safe, judgment free zones. In a society in which public displays of affection like hand holding are frowned upon, teenage pregnancy is an issue in rural provinces, and sex education is still a little bit taboo, these and other extra-marital relationships that are also generally accepted can even be dangerous.

First, mia is a word that is used to describe an animal of the female sex. It is not, generally used to describe women. It’s an impolite, but it’s an acceptable way of referring to your wife, or to someone else’s wife. Pua is the equivalent term for a male animal. It is not often used to describe a man or even a husband, although it can be, in which case it is considered vulgar, though can be employed to comic effect in certain situations. If you want to get really hinky about it, you could argue that linguistically, on getting married, a woman loses some of her social status, while a man doesn’t.

So, then the mia noi. The author implies that sometimes the wives know about the women, and sometimes they don’t, and she’s willing to let it slide as a “win-win” that some women’s husbands are having sexual relationships outside their marriage without their knowledge. That’s gross. Even if the women do know about it, however, their knowledge is not derived from a few conversations with their husbands in which the couple mutually decides that it would be best if the man went elsewhere for sex. Sex-wise, mia noi aren’t the only game in town; geeks are described as being more like sex toys and flings. Whereas some men might stay with a mia noi for years, and perhaps create the intimate relationship that the author describes in her piece, the geeks fall into what in Thailand is a large gray area between consensual sex and prostitution. They exchange their bodies and their presence for trinkets of varying value, and are often casually tossed aside. In training, we were told that growing numbers of college girls regard this kind of relationship as a way to keep up with the consumerist culture that’s fast outpacing the incomes of the more rural populations.

So, how do women recognize that their husband has a mia noi or a geek if he doesn’t tell them? They usually start noticing some of the following signs: The man takes a lot more trips than usual; he gets a second cell phone; he starts spending more money on unnamed things that never end up in the house; he stops being attentive to his children; he starts drinking more or spending more time at parties to which she is not invited; he stops spending money on household items that are necessary; he stops having sex with her and distances himself. Or else she gets tested for an STD after a routine gynecological exam or as part of antenatal care, and discovers she’s got herpes. Or HIV. Some of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Thailand occur in populations of women in “monogamous” relationships. Hmmm. Oh, or else someone just tells her that they saw him at some place with some woman.

At this point, the woman has a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Most often, her friends already know, her family knows or suspects; often, the kids also know. She can stay with him either for financial reasons or in order to hold something together for the children; she can endure the gossip and the direct inquiries of her friends, neighbors, and family members; she can make ends meet with her own earnings so the household does not suffer from the dalliances of her husband. She can do all this and decide either to confront him or not to. Many women do, and they watch their marriages dissolve out from under them whether or not they instigate a discussion or confrontation. Or, she can leave him. Often, this means being the object of more gossip and shame, enduring great financial hardship to split up possessions, move back to her family home, fight for custody of her children.

I know a woman who left a job and a community she loved because her husband became abusive after she confronted him about his mia noi. He paid her tens of thousands of baht and gave her the car that was hers, but in his name, so that she would divorce him. She moved 6 hours away, back to her family home rather than be the object of pity and have to endure the pain as his girlfriend moved into the house and bore her husband of 20+ years his second child. The baby was born last month. All of the teachers, her former colleagues, say it’s very cute.

Another woman I work with had to confront her husband about the money he was spending on his minor wives, unenroll one of her children from a good school because they could no longer afford the costs of sending him there, and endure being the object of gossip for two years while her husband sowed his wild oats. Their marital strain affected her relationships at work, with her students, and with her family, and of course, with her children, who are old enough to know exactly what’s going on. Now, she says things are better, but I haven’t seen them together in over a year. Come to think of it, I’ve barely seen him around at all.

Another woman I know just divorced her husband of 14 years because his priorities changed. He’d had a mia noi for a couple of years; she described the end of their marriage as “not sad, because when you get to that point that you just can’t endure it anymore, what’s there to be sad about if it ends?”

Another woman, whose husband moved to a neighboring province to take a job he was assigned to for two years, is waiting out the separation, hoping that when his contract runs out, he’ll be able to come home and she can stop worrying about which of his female colleagues he’s doing extracurricular activities with.

Another woman we know reunited with her husband and the father of her children after he spend years courting a mia noi who also works in our community. The mistress slandered the woman in the community, confronted her at her house on a number of occasions, and had to be reprimanded by her boss before she stopped bothering the wife, who had insisted that her husband leave the mia noi or leave her.

One of our neighbors spends a few nights a week lonely while her husband takes his mia noi out for dinner or drinks or other diversions. He took her to a work function that my husband also attended.

Speaking of my husband: Married men have suggested stopping in at brothels on more than one occasion, assuring him that the girls are nak suksa (college girls) and not locals, as if to entice him. A teacher I work with, who still lives with her cheating husband and feels that their relationship is more or less over despite their continued co-habitation, propositioned my husband at a work function, saying yak len (I want to play) as she bid him goodbye, after telling him that she was more or less single now that her husband is with his mia noi.

More than once, I have been asked (sometimes directly, sometimes in more suggestive, annoying, and roundabout ways) whether or not my husband has a mia noi. When he has travelled without me, people have asked why I am not calling or texting him RIGHT NOW to find out what he is doing and where he is. They are alarmed when he does not call or text me every day, or when I do not know where he is at 6 p.m. Josh yang mai dai glap, lawww? (Josh hasn’t come back yet, huh?) my neighbor inquires, with mixed equal parts pity and curiosity. Josh bpen jao chuu mai?  (Is Josh a playboy / cheater?) is a question women I don’t know well have felt completely comfortable asking me.

The principal of the school I work at once told me that he had heard a rumor that Josh did have a mia noi in our village. I laughed. Mai huang giao gap rueang nii, ka. Chan mai bpen kon heung. I’m not worried about that. I’m not a jealous person. I tried explaining that men and women can have friendships, non-sexual relationships, that Josh works with a lot of women, that I also know them, and that I trust him. I thought I had dispelled the issue, but months later, a teacher I work closely with, a man, apparently felt the need to repeat the information to my host mother, who confronted me about it abruptly one evening as we made dinner. No, he’s not a jao chu, I said. No, he doesn’t have a mia noi. People don’t understand our relationship. I don’t know if she understood all of the same things I tried to explain to her, but she ended with a diatribe denouncing Thai women who try to steal other people’s husbands. At the end of that conversation, I don’t think she was entirely convinced.

She told me in snippets about her own marriage. I raised four kids on my own; he worked abroad for the better part of seventeen years, she said. And I never had anyone else. She never screwed around. Not brave enough to ask if she thought he had, I asked, and did anyone gossip about you while your husband was gone? She looked up sharply and the knife she’d been peeling the onion with seemed to hover in mid-air. I never gave them a reason to, she said sharply. Of course not.

A few weeks later, Josh spontaneously decided to pull out pictures of our wedding party and show them to our neighbors. Just then, our host mom walked up. After seeing a few of the pictures, including a few totally inappropriate kissing ones, she got my attention and asked me if I had told Josh about what she had said. Yes, I said. What did he say? she asked. He thought it was ridiculous, I said. She started laughing. Dton tii mee daai-yin kao nii, mee saao jai maak mai. Mai dtong yaek-gan. Di-jai maak man mai jing. When I heard that news, I was very said, she said. Don’t split up. I’m very happy it’s not true. Me too, I said.

Girls break up with their boyfriends because they are jao-chu; they get into long distance relationships and then these men conveniently find other girlfriends. The women feel deceived and cheated, and they also lose trust in all men. Or else lose trust in their ability to find a man who isn’t a jao-chu. A good friend, about my age, wants kids, but she doesn’t want a husband. I just need someone to get drunk and get me pregnant, she joked. (She’s just about the most conservative nearly-30 year old single woman I can imagine. Saying this out loud is about as risqué as she’ll ever get.) She doesn’t want a husband because all men are jao-chu in her mind. Even on her wedding day and in the weeks after, another woman asked Josh and I whether we thought her new husband was jao-chu or not. I’ve never heard discussed the stress that distance puts on relationships, never heard women talking aloud about working to alleviate situational stresses that might increase the likelihood of cheating (which isn’t to say that they don’t talk about this stuff when I’m not around, or in front of me, and I just don’t understand it!) Rather than seeing it in their power to discuss with their husbands the parameters that they find acceptable in a marriage, women seem to feel that all the power in the relationship rests with the man; their fate as a wife or girlfriend is determined by whether he has jao-chu predilections or not.

Update: Today, my male co-teacher and I were discussing the behavior of the boys in the sixth grade class. There is a contingent of boys in both the fifth and sixth grade whose behavior belies the fact that they are angry, in desperate need of attention and more care and love. In short, they are rude, mean, bully other kids, and are NOT interested in learning. They got in trouble on a recent field trip for smoking cigarettes. My teacher said, today, about three boys in particular, They come from broken families. This one lives with his father's new wife. This one and that one, their fathers have many wives and children with more than one wife. Their fathers are sometimes here and sometimes they are not. They do not have anyone to take care of them. Which reminds me, two weeks ago, one of the sweetest girls in my class completely spaced out for about two days. Wouldn't do work. Wouldn't look at anyone. Her mom came to school to talk with the teachers. It turned out her father had just left for another province, to go live with his mia noi, and he had left his actual wife and children in debt and without a vehicle. No wonder she couldn't concentrate.

I could keep going, but I hope what you’re seeing in these examples is that the mia noi system is hardly a win-win. It’s a vestige of a mentality that values men over women, that sees female sexuality as being at men’s service, rather than as a function of female pleasure, and of a society in which women’s fortunes were historically tied to whether or not she managed to remain tethered to the financial and social unit of her husband’s family. It is part of a cultural system that reveres wealth, status, and beauty, and in which the acquisition of a beautiful young female enhances a man’s estimation not only in his eyes but in the eyes of other men. It is a system in which mia noi or a geek can gain access to a man’s resources and time and status in exchange often for sex and public companionship.

Ultimately, I see that the acceptance of the mia noi in Thai society has far less to do with its supposed value as a cultural or social institution, and more to do with the value of kwam sammakkee, or social harmony and unity, that guides most of Thai life. I am not surprised that people would simply laugh at it, or just say that that’s the way it is, when discussing what is really an uncomfortable and enduring ossification of the different roles of men, women, and wives in Thai society with a foreigner. Thais don’t like to talk about uncomfortable subjects, and will often shrug something off before discussing its ramifications in their own lives, let alone to speak on a subject that might shed their culture in a poor light. It’s an understandable tendency that it leads a lot of systemic problems to be laughed off or swept under the rug.

Nevertheless, this discomfort around how relationships work and the lack of clarity about how they’re supposed to function, leads many young women I have talked with to more or less expect that their husbands or long term boyfriends will turn out to be jao-chu. They are predisposed toward jealousy and insecurity, and similarly predisposed not to respect the relationships between men they desire and other women. Men, meanwhile, don’t necessarily seek to build strong relationships with the women they eventually marry, or else let these relationships break down because it’s acceptable for them to find intimacy with other, more interesting prospects. In the end, this means that the foundations for building good intimate relationships between men and women are weak to begin with, and this is compounded in an economic climate that forces couples split up all over the country (and sometimes the world) for extended periods of time as they save for their weddings or raise their children and try to navigate the beginning stages of starting lives together—all at a vast distance, not only measured in kilometers, but also in experience and expectations. Relationships that could be intimate, loving, and meaningful may instead crumble because of suspicions, refusal to discuss problems, and the existence of an easy out for one party.

Perhaps there are women who have managed to successfully and happily navigate the position of the mia yai or the mia noi and situations in which the husband’s seeking his own pleasure and fulfillment outside the marriage has actually led to a net increase in happiness all around, but I haven’t seen it.


This isn’t to say that all men have mia noi or that all men are jao-chu, as many of my girlfriends here would claim. On the contrary, I have seen many examples of close, loving relationships between married men and women, and these relationships thrive with the support of friends, family, and extended communities. All relationships regardless of their cultural habitat are difficult, rocky, and scary at times. There are plenty of extramarital affairs wreaking havoc in my home country as well, and our views on sex and marriage and relationships could certainly use an update. But that doesn’t change the fact that this mia noi business just isn’t a win-win.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Moving forward

And just like that, it’s hot season again. (Note: all references to things being cool, cold, or otherwise not warm should be taken with a grain of salt by anyone not currently living in the tropics.)

Since mid-December, we’d been wearing long sleeved shirts to bed, snuggling down in long pants, and pulling a thick blanket up over our shoulders every night. No fan. No open windows. The world was a familiar winter one of head colds and hot tea, with the added bonus of biking to work in sweatshirts and wearing socks all day. Thais laughed at us as we donned clothes similar to what they were wearing, and we all sipped warm drinks and told each other, naao, naao (cold, cold) instead of the usual awkward-silence-filling rawn, rawn (hot, hot) usually uttered while waving an impotent hand across your face as if to create a breeze. Showers were torturous as we doused ourselves with water that had chilled all day, sometimes putting off bathing for a full 48 hours before we really felt compelled to brave the iciness and lather up. After all, we weren’t sweating, right?

Then, about a week ago, it all changed. Mornings that had been freezing excuses for staying in bed an extra hour melted away, and we started melting again as long afternoons filled up with sun and heat. Work became sweaty and uncomfortable again. Naao became rawn. Fans went on. Windows opened.

A year ago, we endured cold season with smirks and offhanded comments. This year, although even the Thais say it’s unusually cold, we are eating a little crow because we too seem to have acclimated to the shifted temperature range; our blood and skin must have thinned considerably. A teacher checked the mercury thermometer at school two weeks ago; it was near 9 a.m. and we were standing around shivering outside the office. Sip-jet ongsaa, he pronounced. Seventeen degrees. Celsius. I did the conversation on my phone, and became immediately ashamed of my purpling toes: 66 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm spring day by some standards. So, we’re fitting in a little here, to say the least.

Other signs we’re “fitting in” have multiplied as well. A couple of weeks ago, we were called to join a meeting in our village at which the villagers were going to be voting in a new water board (the old water board was being disbanded under charges of having done something other than maintaining the water tower and filter with the past five years’ worth of money). We sat quietly in the back and took notes. We waited patiently while the man conducting the meeting ensured that one person from every water-using household was present and accounted for. Josh was sent by some neighbors to add his name to the list in lieu of our absentee landlord. It turned our landlord’s name wasn’t on the list, anyway. We listened through the explanation of the voting procedures and watched those around us raise their hands to vote as the decision to kick out the old board was made final. After the votes were tallied, someone queried whether we’d voted or not; it seemed she wanted to make sure we had.  (We hadn’t. She asked why, didn’t we know what was going on? We said yes, but our residence wasn’t on the list. This was an acceptable excuse, I guess.)

Our neighbors have begun accepting food from us, even food that I claim is Thai food that I cooked myself, they seem willing to eat.

The kids I teach wave and yell hello, even when I’m not teaching them.

People I bike past on a daily basis and have spoken to at length only a few times say they’ll miss me.

Everyone’s starting to ask about when we’re going back home.

And that seems to be the one thing that everyone here and everyone at home seems to have in common.

Part of the reason we hadn’t been writing the blog (or that I hadn’t, anyway) during the cold season (aside from all the travelling and business that I laid out as an excuse in the last blog post) is that since about September, we’ve been mulling over—really, agonizing is a better word—the possibility of staying in Thailand for another year. And we didn’t want to agonize over it in public, or alarm anyone, or jinx anything, before we made up our minds one way or another. We were presented an opportunity to move out of our community and to a big city in Isaan (Northeast Thailand), to work with a university, and university students on some different projects that are more directly related to our experience (and we hope, our ambitions).

After the torturous process of changing our minds on an hourly basis, finding ourselves almost entirely out of sync with each other’s thought processes, negotiating the ups and downs of finalizing the details of the position – all those minor things about where will we live? who will we work with? what will we do? why would we want to go there? when will we move? – and generally realizing that what’s required in this instance, as in just about any other, is a leap of blind faith (in other people’s and our own good intentions, in the potential for everything to just work out, dammit), we’ve decided to go for it (with very few of the answers to the above questions entirely worked out).


What that means, exactly, we're not fully sure. As the details unfold, so will the stories. Stay tuned!