Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28, 2009


HELLO everybody.

"And the beat goes on....................................."

 I am in Thailand. It is my 13th visit in a dozen years. I first came at the behest of a close friend who was a frequent visitor and is now an ex-pat resident 11 months a year. I came to get away from the trials and tribulations of home. And I fell in love with the place. On past visits I have used the opportunity to explore the country and the wider region - Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, China). What kept me coming back was first and foremost, the weather. The older I get the less I like the Northern California winters. I don't mind the rain so much, but it's the endless months of gray skies that wear me down. (I know - for east coast readers northern California winters must seem like Springtime, but for a California boy born and raised, the relentless gray gets old.) In Southeast Asia November through March is the high season - glorious, endless sunshine, balmy evenings and no rain (the rains come here in late April, and September is the real monsoon season). The other attraction for me was that it was (and to a lesser degree, but still is) relatively cheap. The dollar goes further here than elsewhere. I can stay here for a month for the same cost as a week in Hawaii. (It helps that I abhor large chain luxury hotels and much prefer local boutique guest houses and that I also prefer almost all things local to those that cater to western tourists).

Beyond the climate, the people and the culture keep me enamored with the country. It is good for my perspective I think to find myself a minority. And though on the island of Phuket there are plenty of western tourists, I am quite obviously a foreigner (colloquially termed a "farang" in local parlance). Being an "outsider" lets me get out of myself to a degree, to remind myself that all things in the world are not centered around America, nor me. It alters my perspective. At home I have my "Safeway Parking Lot" theory. I try to remember every time I enter the local supermarket parking lot, that all those other cars were driven by people with problems just like me. Each of them is trying hard to deal with the ups and downs of their lives, trying to cope with daily and grander challenges, and that, as my favorite bumper sticker of all time proclaimed: "Life on Planet Earth is only one sixth billionth about YOU (me)". I try to remember that they are all human beings deserving of respect and that I am but one more in an ocean of humanity.

Alas it doesn't work often enough -- I am so wrapped up in myself, in my life, in what daily errands I need to attend to, what long range hopes and dreams I must push, what the sorry state of the world means to me, that as often as not I don't even see the people who drove all those other cars. I am oblivious to their existence; isolated and concerned principally with myself and my little life. So it helps me to come here every year where I can leave some of that life at home, and where I am the outsider in a culture vastly different from what I am use to. And the Thai culture - though remarkably Western and familiar - is decidedly and pointedly hugely different from American / California culture. It helps me to remember to be kinder to people back home.

It is hard to visit other places and peoples and get any real sense of the nuances of the differences in cultures if you only stay a week or two in a place. That I have been coming back here now for a dozen years has allowed me the luxury and privilege to begin to truly understand how another people cope with life in our surprisingly similar and surprisingly different world. It has thus allowed me to actually see and recognize the differences in Burmese vs. Cambodian Buddahs, to be able to tell someone from Issan and someone from Malaysia, to glimpse some insights into how other peoples (at least those in Southeast Asia) deal with life. As tourists we are often so intent on seeing the highlights of a country in the couple of days we might be there, that there is no time to begin to really see the people. As we move towards homogeneous global culture, I celebrate the differences and pray inwardly that those differences -- that great asset - does not disappear someday-- though all evidence seems to contradict that yearning. I have traveled in Southeast Asia enough now, that I can identify and appreciate the differences between regions and sub-cultures. Here in Thailand there are, like in America, different customs and ways of doing things in various geographic areas of the country - from the Burmese and Issan influences in the north to the Malaysian character of the south. Much like the differences between the East Coast and New England vs. the South or California approaches and lifestyles at home. After awhile, time allows one to more fully see those differences - in everything from attitudes towards family, work, friends, love, war, politics and life itself. And I find it good for my soul to be reminded how countless "tribes" across the planet are so very different in the approaches to life. One isn't necessarily better or worse than another - just different. Human beings trying to cope - to laugh, cry, worry, hope and dream. To be part of something more than themselves yet at the same time traveling down their paths alone.

And on the island of Phuket, as at home, there exists numerous small communities. I know enough full time residents here - both ex-pat and Thai - to participate in local gossip and spend endless hours over dinners debating the wisdom and folly of what goes on here. I while away and waste time here much as I do at home - the difference is the focus and the cultural differences in the way those things are done. Yet I remain an outsider and that gives me perspective that helps me to shed some (though only a little) of my selfishness on my return home.

Phuket has become too popular - the building boom continues unabated despite the slowdown in tourism. Where the island was almost "sleepy" a decade ago, now there are morning and afternoon traffic jams as there are at home. For years I stayed on the busy west coast of the island with its broad beaches and the hustle and bustle of its nightlife - but now I stay on the other side of the island, once forgotten, but it too is feeling the negatives of excessive commercialization. I suppose it is axiomatic that the older you get, the less you want your world to change, and as I cling to my memory of what once was, not wanting that to morph into something ugly, I can see the day where Phuket will become so much a shadow of its former self that it will lose much of its charm for me. But not yet.


Like everywhere else in the world, Thailand and little Phuket have their fair share of problems - some economic, some political, some social. In the region there are disputes, conflicts, tensions and turmoil - the same all over the globe. While 99% of the people in the world seem to me to simply want to live their lives, we somehow allow the wrong people to have the power to compromise that simple truth. What is refreshing to me here is that these problems are largely local. You don't hear all that much
about America when you are over here. Oh to be sure you can watch CNN or the BBC, or go online - but even those newscasts are slanted not to America, but to Asia. While at home it is hard to not hear the word "Obama" or "Iraq" countless times during the course of a day, here I can go for several days and not hear anything about America. It is a national conceit (not just us, but every country's) to think the whole world is wrapped up in what 'we' do. Frankly, in many, many ways Asia could care less about America. Not Anti-American - more indifference. That reality alone jolts my thinking. The true beauty of diversity is that it allows (or makes) you confront your own culture, your own thinking.

And then there are the individual stories of the few people one actually knows personally -- no different here than at home. Economic realities, the challenges of family, work and friends; hopes and dreams, fears and concerns. Thoughts about, and ways to deal with those common everyday emotions are different here because the culture is different, and so the thinking is different (subtle perhaps, but profoundly so). Still, in the end, things are largely (as they say here) "same-same" the world over and we share as much as we differ.

All in all spending time in Paradise is, of course, an illusion. Ex-pats in countries the world over run from a variety of things, telling themselves (as Jimmy Buffet noted in his song 'Banana Republic') "the same lies that they told themselves back home". All of one's baggage travel with one. But Buffet was also dead-on when he noted that: "Changes in Latitudes" make for profound "Changes in Attitudes", and though I know when I get home I will lazily fall back into comfortable patterns, and soon be again self-absorbed , at least for a few brief days I will be so much more aware of all those different people in the Safeway Parking Lot, and perhaps for those few days I will be more understanding, kinder, a little more empathetic and even sympathetic to the differences at home. The remarkable beauty of, and exposure to, cultural differences in another part of the world give me this small gift each year, and I am grateful for whatever brief level of greater understanding I can get. Alonzo King taught me that Life is really about oneself as a "work in progress" (an insight I wish I had acknowledged sooner). Everything you do - your job, your friends, your family life - your thoughts and thinking - your experiences -- it's all about how it molds and shapes you as a "work". Alas it is hard sometimes to think that one's own work in this regard remains so unfinished. And so one toils on, and that's why I love to travel and why diversity makes me feel so good -- it helps in the progress and process of ME as a work. That in the long run, I remain so shallow that I must return each year to satisfy this addiction to thinking differently seems a bonus. There are more places on my "bucket list", here and around the world, for me to explore than I have time to see. I should have started sooner, but you know how that goes. Youth truly is "wasted on the young" - but it's not their fault after all.

It is too bad we fail to appreciate, and more often than not remain so isolated from, our own Cultural differences at home - that we ALL remain so inside our own insular worlds. Too often we see those cultural differences (and there is no place on the planet with more diverse cultures than in California) as a problem and not an asset. Oh sure, we pay lip service to our multiculturalism, and even try to celebrate it, but we fail to fully internalize how wonderful it is those differences exist; how they complement, not crush, each other. Then again there is a lot on our minds when we drive into the Safeway parking lot.

I hope you all have a great week. I have one more week here half way across the world - then I must come home. But I know too that I will come back here again.

Don't Quit