Paris je t’aime

Last night Tawn and I saw our first movie of the Bangkok World Film Festival.  Not thinking clearly, I arranged for a conference call with my boss at the same time, to record a training presentation over the phone.  So I rescheduled; the only time available for the rest of the week on her schedule was Thursday afternoon her time, meaning that I was up at 3:00 am Friday for a 3:30 call!  Yawn!

But enough about that.  What about the movie?


Paris je t’aime (I Love Paris)

Paris 11What is Paris to you?  Each of us have a different memory of the City of Lights, a different sense and feeling of what it means to be in Paris.  In this ambitious film, twenty directors from around the globe are each given just a few minutes to tell a story about a particular arrondissement.  The films range from funny to dramatic to terrifying (in a comic way), and each concludes with the shot or scene that opens the subsequent film.

Far from being a montage of postcard views of Paris, these are the stories of people in Paris – for what gives Paris its life other than its people?  Most of the films are in French, a few are in English and all of them are about love… and Paris.

Here are most of the short films:

Paris 6 Montmartre
Directed, written by Bruno Podalydes.  With: Florence Muller, Podalydes.

An offbeat sense of humor is established from the opening story, in which a frustrated man (writer-director Bruno Podalydes) struggles to find a parking spot only to spend the time parked complaining aloud about why he can’t find a girlfriend.  Then a lovely young woman faints beside his car.  Oui, it is true love!



Paris 1 Quais de Seine
Directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Bekham”). Screenplay, Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha.  With: Leila Bekhti, Cyril Descours.

With a light touch and an eye for the glories of a sunny day, Gurinder Chadha offers a pitch-perfect commentary on the idiocy of religious and racial stereotyping as a young man learns more from a modest hijab-wearing young woman than from his leering buddies.

Paris 5 Le Marais
Directed, written by Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”).   With: Marianne Faithfull, Elias McConnell, Gaspard Ulliel.

An atmospheric short in which a fresh young man delivers a frank and yearning monologue – a tapesty of every pick-up line ever used – to a print shop staffer, whose silence has a mysterious cause.

Paris 14 Tuileries
Directed, written by Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”). With: Steve Buscemi A

A hilarious tale of an American tourist at the Tuileries Metro stop who learns just how accurate his guidebook is.  When the guidebook says, “don’t make eye contact,” it really means it!

 

Paris 9 Loin du 16eme
Directed, written by Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) and Daniela Thomas With: Catalina Sandino Moreno.

Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas paint a wrenching portrait of the gulf between a poor immigrant servant’s experience of motherhood and that of her employer. 

Paris 3 Porte de Choisy
Directed, written by Christopher Doyle (DP, “In the Mood For Love”).  With: Barbet Schroeder, Li Xin.

An ambitious musical fantasty and erstwhile commentary on the fetishizing of the Asian female within haute couture is set in Chinatown but is really all over the map as noted director Barbet Schroeder plays a hair care products rep.

 

 

Paris 7 Bastille
Directed, written by Isabelle Coixet.  With: Sergio Castellitto, Miranda Richardson.

An intensely bittersweet take on a man about to leave his wife for his mistress, until he learns she is diagnosed with terminal leukemia and, rising to the occassion, learns to love her again.

 

Paris 4 Place des Victoires
Directed, written by Nobuhiro Suwa.  With: Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Hippolyte Girardot.

Binoche grieves for her dead son in a parable about a cowboy who rides the midnight streets of Paris.  She is finally able to let go, letting the cowboy ferry her son to the next world. 

 

Paris 17 Tour Eiffel
Directed, written by Sylvain Chomet.  With: Paul Putner, Yolande Moreau.

Sylvain Chomet, the gifted animator of “The Triplettes of Belleville” directs live actors for the first time, imbuing them with much of the off-kilter humor that’s his trademark.  This film answers the question, how do mimes find true love?


 

Paris 12 Parc Monceau
Directed, written by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien).  With: Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier.

Alfonso Cuaron plays with sound, space and viewer assumptions in a long tracking shot with a mild twist as his camera follows an probable May-December romance.



 

Paris 13 Pigalle
Directed, written by Richard LaGravanese (Writer, “The Horse Whisperer”).  With: Bob Hoskins, Fanny Ardant. 

Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins play a couple unsure just how theatrical their sex lives should be in Richard LaGravanese’s “Pigalle.”

 

 

Paris 8 Place des Fetes
Directed, written by Olivier Schmitz.  With: Aissa Maiga, Seydou Boro.

A new paramedic learns the power of even the briefest of human interactions while treating a stab victim who sings a love song to her, asking only to invite her for a cup of coffee.

 

Paris 2 Faubourg Saint-Denis
Directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”).  With: Natalie Portman, Melchior Beslon. 

The tale of an actress trying to break off her affair with a blind linguist holds a surprise in an intensity that overtakes the characters. 

 

Paris 10 14th Arrondissement
Directed, written by Alexander Payne.  With: Margo Martindale. 

This narrative of a Denver matron’s week-long and long-awaited visit Paris to improve her halting French begins in sarcasm and ends in sympathy.  This is the film that most spoke to me, personally.

 

Paris 15 Quartier Latin
Directed by Gerard Depardieu, Frederic Auburtin. Screenplay, Gena Rowlands. With: Rowlands, Ben Gazzara

A cafe appointment with edgy yet affectionate sparring between a long-married couple who are on the verge of a divorce.


Paris 16 Pere-Lachaise
Directed, written by Wes Craven.  With: Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell. 

Wes Craven naturally gravitates to a graveyard for his oddball contribution involving Oscar Wilde giving love advice to the living.


 

 


 

Some disturbing news reported in yesterday’s The Nation newspaper:

 

Chao Phya flowing downstream at fastest rate in 60 years

The chief of the Royal Investigation Department said Wednesday that the Chao Phya River was flowing downstream past Nakhon Sawan at the fastest rate in 60 years.

Samart Chokkhanaipithak said water was gushing downstream to Bangkok past Nakhon Sawan at the rate of 5,145 cubic metres per second, higher than in 1995 when Bangkok suffered massive flooding.

The director-general of the department said it was expected the speed of water would increase to 5,300 cubic metres per second in a few days.

Ron Elving: Have We Blown Up All the Foley Mines?

Very insightful column from Ron Elving, of National Public Radio’s “Watching Washington” regarding a “dirty secret” about the House of Representatives and its Republican members. 


It now appears there have been three Mark Foley landmines waiting to explode beneath the feet of congressional Republicans.

The first was the aggressive behavior of the six-term veteran Foley, who resigned from Congress Sept. 29 when the raw nature of his interest in congressional pages became public. Foley actually shocked Washington, and that’s not easy to do in our time.

Bad as it was, that was just the first explosion.

The second came when people realized how much had been known about Foley’s attention to pages and pursuit of former pages. It seems that at a minimum, several members of Congress and its staff were aware of the problem.

This second explosion was more damaging than the first. It created the impression that the Republican leaders in the House were more concerned with political damage than with protecting the pages. Polls show most Americans now believe this.

As for the third landmine, it’s still lying un-detonated, just below the surface on Capitol Hill. And it has the potential to cause the most far-reaching damage of all.

This untouched landmine is the fact that quite a few of the people who are essential to running the House are gay, and many of them are keeping it a secret. This includes some members and many staff. And it most definitely includes Republicans.

In fact, because Hill gays who are Democrats are more likely to be out — having less to fear in terms of reprisal — the closeted gays are more likely as a rule to be Republican.

All this is ho-hum to many denizens of Washington. The presence of gays among the congressional members and staff is old news, if rarely discussed in public. In practical terms, most on the Hill have gotten over it, including many of the most conservative Republicans in both chambers.

But can the same be said for some of the Republican Party’s most ardent supporters? …

So as to not entirely pilfer the copyrighted material, I’ll ask that you read the rest of Elving’s article by clicking here.


 

My prediction is that, eventually, there will be a major clash within the Republican Party between the wing of that party more concerned about social conservativism, and the wing of the party – one might call them the Libertarians – more concerned with economic and foreign policy conservativism.

Especially for my readers outside the US who find that American poiltics leaves them scratching their heads, I’ll share these further observations:

It is extremely popular within US punditry (read: mainstream media) to play up the “great divide” between the Blue States and Red States, Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals.  But the reality is much different: The vast majority of Americans are fairly close together on most issues.

  • Socially, most Americans generally favor a “live and let live” approach, not liking the idea of discrimination while also being a bit uncomfortable with radical breaks from the past such as giving gay people the right to marry in the exact same way straight people do.
  • Morally, most Americans agree that things such as abortion are not desireable and would like to see the number of abortions minimized, while being wary of excessive government control over personal decisions.
  • Economically, most Americans would like to see a balanced budget, meetings the needs of today while ensuring financial security for future generations.  Most Americans favor some safety net for those who are down on their luck, but also believe that individuals “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps” is what made the country great.
  • Internationally, most Americans are fearful about the uncertainty of this age of international terrorism and want to take preventative measures, but are concerned about their governement having overreaching powers that limit personal freedoms, as well as not wanting to be involved in military conflicts in other countries.

The challenge we have as a populace is in breaking out of this “either/or”, “us/them”, “blue/red” dichotomy and insisting that our elected officials (and those running for office) begin to speak to the vast center of our population rather than pandering to the extremities.

The University of Michigan has an interesting article on their website showing conventional and more accurate ways to look at this supposed political dichotomy:

statemapredblue The (con tiguous 48) states of the country are colored red or blue to indicate whether a majority of their voters voted for the Republican candidate (George W. Bush) or the Democratic candidate (John F. Kerry) respectively in the 2004 Presidential election.  The map gives the superficial impression that the “red states” dominate the country, since they cover far more area than the blue ones.  This is misleading because it fails to take into account the fact that most of the red states have small populations, whereas most of the blue states have large ones.

 

statecartredblueIf this is corrected for by making use of a cartogram, a map in which the sizes of states have been rescaled according to their population, we see more of a balance.  However, there is in fact still more red than blue on this map, even after allowing for population sizes. Of course, we know that nationwide the percentages of voters voting for either candidate were almost identical, so what is going on here?

 

 

The answer seems to be that the amount of red on the map is skewed because there are a lot of counties in which only a slim majority voted Republican. One possible way to allow for this, suggested by Robert Vanderbei at Princeton University, is to use not just two colors on the map, red and blue, but instead to use red, blue, and shades of purple to indicate percentages of voters. Here is what the normal map looks like if you do this:

countycartlinear

And the cartogram, showing that only a rather small area is taken up by true red counties, the rest being mostly shades of purple with patches of blue in the urban areas.


Gosh, and to think that two posts ago I was talking about the spoof of movie posters.

 

Nam Tuam

Nam tuam means “water floods.”  It is rainy season in Khrungthep and while that in and of itself is quite usual, given the significant rainfall we’ve had in the mountains to the north, the entire Kingdom has been experiencing a slow-moving flood.  First the Chiang Mai area, then Sukhothai, then last week Ayutthaya.  Now Khrungthep is beginning to see the very high waters.  And on a day when it rains heavily, that water – already challenged by an inadequate drainage system and a low elevation – has nowhere to go.

Late afternoon I had coffee with Kazu one soi down from my apartment.  It started raining while we were there and already the water was ankle-deep in some places by the time I headed home.  Standing on the corner trying to figure out the best way to cross the water, dozens of large cockroaches were emerging from the cracks in the pavement and around the utility covers, fleeing the rising tide.  Especially funny (or not) was the way they were running up my pants legs, trying to get to higher ground. 

A few very un-Buddhist flicks of my newspaper sent them flying, to the amusement of three young ladies sitting in their nearby restauran, watching the goings-on.

By the time Tawn finally arrived home from work about 8:00 he told me that the street was flooded.  “Oh, sure,” I said, unimpressed, “it floods every time it rains.”  He insisted that I should go take a look at it and it was indeed much more flooded than I remember previously.

DSCF1209  DSCF1202

DSCF1219 As I arrived on the street, the air was heavy with the smell of gasoline as the sidewalks (those that weren’t flooded) were filled with motorbikes that had stalled in the water.  Owners tried to repair their engines, while others grabbed a bear or two from 7-11 and chatted.  One car had stalled out in my condo’s driveway and the guards were trying to help the owner as he waited for a tow truck to arrive.

Water was running more than 30 cm deep (about 1 foot) and the lower sidewalks (next to the street) were under water.  Thankfully many of the businesses nearby have a second, higher sidewalk in front of the buildings.  So I went around the adjacent buildings, trying to capture some of the images of Khrungthep struggling with what is likely just the first in a wave of floods.

A view from the third floor of the neighboring office bulding shows the extent of the flooding.  The “no right turn” sign is located on the curb of the lower sidewalk, now completely under water.  Telephone boxes become islands.  

 

DSCF1184 DSCF1174

DSCF1160 Dozens of motorbikes wait out the flood.  Some of the braver (or higher) ones took to the streets, others just waited patiently. 

Despite the large number of people stranded, there was no anger or frustration.  Tawn reported many people laughing and having a good time, office girls taking off their shoes and gigling as they walked along the sidewalks.

One vendor, selling steamed corn from his bicycle-powered cart, worked his way down the street, selling to those standing around.  The catch: to buy an ear you had to wade out to him!

DSCF1240  DSCF1271  DSCF1295  DSCF1299

When Tawn was crossing the street he got near the curb but couldn’t tell where it was.  “Sister,” he cried out to a passing pedestrain, “where’s the edge of the sidewalk?”  She replied that she was standing just on the edge and held out a hand to help guide him up.

Thankfully, Tawn had a pair of flip-flops in the office – many Thais shed their nice shoes and instead wear flip-flops around the office – and so he used these on the trip home, carrying his shoes.  He reported that at the Skytrain station, announcements were being made to kindly remind passengers to please wear their shoes while in the station and on the trains.

 

 

Of Cars, Queens, Visas and Film Festivals

This was a working weekend.  With a very large project for my job, I spent the better part of Saturday as well as part of Sunday working.  In between, though, Tawn and I managed to catch two movies, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Outside of that, there were two other significant events:

Event One: Festival Found

World Film Fest 206 World Film Fest 206a

I found out the that World Film Festival of Bangkok will be taking place October 11 through 23.  There is an interesting history here because Bangkok had a film festival for a dozen years but then five years ago the Tourism Authority of Thailand decided that Bangkok needed to become “the” film festival of Asia.  Scrapping the existing staff, they brought in advisors from Beverly Hills and for a reported US$ 4 million plus, have produced a series of glitzy festivals that have been all style, no organization and no substance.  One writer for the Bangkok Post was so upset at their disorganization that last year, less than a week before the start of the festival, he wrote a scathing article pointing out that the organizers had yet to release the schedule of films to the press, the public, or the cinemas showing the films!

Kriengsak Silakong, a francophile Thai who has long been involved in the local film industry, started working the The Nation newspaper to create a competing festival, described by the same Bangkok Post writer as a contrast between “the infamously rich [festival] in January run by tourism people [and] the poorer one in October run by film-loving people.”

The Festival does indeed prove to be quite good from both a programming and an organizational standpoint.  Tawn and I went to one of the cinemas to buy advance tickets and discovered that that cinema could sell us tickets for any of the shows at any of the three venues (all at competing cinema chains) from their box office.  The festival also capped tickets for any show at 100 baht (the “official” festival had tickets running from 140-200 baht with no discounts), 50 baht for students.  Plus, we discovered at the box office, we could buy a pack of five tickets, get a sixth free plus five coupons for free popcorn good at any of the cinemas. 

Here is a selection of some of the films I’ll see:

  • Paris, je t’aime – A host of international directors from Wes Craven to Gus Van Zant to Alfonso Cuarón each helm a segment about love and the love of the City of Lights, arrondissement by arrondissement.
  • The Banquet – Xiagong Feng’s epic-scale story of murder, betrayal and revenge in the Five Dynasties period, starring Zhang Ziyi and Daniel Wu.
  • Sanctuary Rhapsody – Supucksarun Suwonnapraprad’s film about a girl who tries to enter the world of men, finding it more foreign than she imagined.
  • The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros – Auraeus Solito directs this coming-of-age story by Michiko Yamamoto about a 12-year old gay boy growing up in the gritty, crime-filled slums of Metro Manila, and his crush on a policeman.
  • At the End of the Journey – Director Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s story of a teacher who hides his feelings for fear of losing his job, until one day a young man enters his life and slowly opens his heart.
  • I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang returns to his hometown of Kuala Lumpur in this meditation on connection and disconnection.  After being robbed and attacked, Hsiao-kang, a homeless Chinese man, is rescued and taken in by some Bangladeshi workers. One of them, Rawang, lets him sleep beside him on an old mattress that he had found on the street. Later, when Chyi, a waitress at a coffee-shop, meets Hsiao-kang, she is filled with lustful desire. As Hsiao-kang slowly recovers, he finds himself caught between Rawang and Chyi – as well as Chyi’s female boss.
  • Iklimler (The Climate) – Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan helms and stars in this story of the unspoken reasons that relationships collapse.  Isa (Ceylan) is a dowdy university professor inattentive of his younger TV business wife Bahar.  Both are lonely figures dragged through the ever-changing climate of their inner selves in pursuit of a happiness that no longer belongs to them.
  • 12:08 East of Bucharest – This Romanian comedy about conflicting versions of history, set in a small village outside Bucharest, sixteen years after the revolution that ousted Ceausescu.   On the anniversary of that historic day, the owner of the local TV station invites two guests to share their moment of revolutionary glory.  One is an old retiree and sometime Santa Claus, the other a history teacher who has just devoted his entire salary to his drinking debts. Together, they will remember the day when they stormed their town hall shouting “Down with Ceausescu!”  But phone-in viewers dispute the claims of the heroes, who may have been boozing in the bar or making Christmas preparations rather than rebeling in the streets.
  • Feast of the Goat – Based on the best-selling novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, Luis Llosa tells the story of Urania Cabral, a beautiful, kind, intelligent and independent Manhattan lawyer who, after an absence of 30 years, returns to the Dominican Republic to face the horrifying circumstances that altered her life forever when she was a teenager and Rafael Leónidas Trujillo a.k.a El Chivo (The Goat) was the iron-handed ruler of this country.
  • Closing night offers a rare treat – a screening of Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 silent classic by Sergei M. Eisenstein about a Russian naval mutiny in the city of Odessa that is a standard text for film students everywhere.  This is presented with an added soundtrack by the Pet Shop Boys, proving to be a very interesting addition to this significant black-and-white work.  IMDB link.

One especially refreshing aspect to this programming is that Thai independent features and short films are given good visibility.  The “other” festival was notable for its exclusion of Thai films, a source of much complaint by the local film industry.  It would seem the Tourism Authority is more interested in having foreigners come here to shoot their movies than to support the local movie industry.

 

Event Two: Visa Run Dilema

As I come to the end of my one-year Type B Non-Immigrant Visa, I’ve spoken with my lawyer about renewing it.  Unfortunately, Thai embassies and consulates in Asia are reluctant to issue such visas and he has suggested that, short of returning to the United States, I should go to a consulate in Australia or Dubai.

My visa expires November 28, the day my parents are set to arrive for a visit.  I’ll have a ten-day window of opportunity before then in which to make a run.  The question is where and how – spending money on an airplane ticket is a distinctly disheartening prospect and I’m not keen to burn up miles on an award ticket, either.

Stay tuned for more updates on how this situation will be resolved.

 

Event Three: Planning for Visitors

With several sets of visitors queueing up for arrival in November and December – the first week of December may see as many as ten visitors including my parents – I’ve been working to pull together itineraries and make hotel arrangements.  The challenge is in getting a trip to Chiang Mai planned.  There is a gala flora exposition opening in November for three months and this looks to be the big event in Thailand over the winter.  Plane tickets and hotel rooms are filling up and I’m trying to find a place for us before spaces disappear!

 

Finally, the Movies

Tawn and I did have time for two films this weekend:

Cars

Cars 3 Pixar animation’s John Lasseter helms its latest animated treat, this one a little less compelling than all the others.  Perhaps it is because I just don’t care about cars all that much, whether or not they have voices and facial expressions.  But there is great detail in the filmmaking and Pixar films comes across as such works of art, in comparison to what we see released from many other studios.  Only Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away“) seem to equal the craftsmanship, and it is well known that Lasseter is a long-time admirer of master Miyazaki.

Voicing by Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt and Owen Wilson is strongly acted and there are enough subtle jokes (the insects in the tumbleweed town of Radiator Springs are little Volkswagen Beatles with wings) to keep you entertained even as the film runs about twenty minutes longer than necessary.

Films from Pixar are always of especial interest to me because my aunt Sandy’s brother-in-law Mark works at Pixar.  We begin to hear buzz of the films more than a year in advance and although he can’t say much about them, it is fun to hear about concepts and then finally see how they play out – so far, always successfully – on the big screen.

 

Reinas (Queens)

Queens 1 Starring five of Pedro Almodovar’s leading ladies, Manuel Gomez Pereira’s Reinas is less a story about gay marriage and more a story of the mothers of the gay sons who are going to participate in Spain’s first gay marriages. 

The range of characters is rich and neurotic, with very strong acting.  The stories are themselves a bit too simply drawn and become a tangled mess, sometimes winding up just a little too neatly.  But there is a lot of heart and it is an enjoyable film. 

One thing I particularly appreciated, something we see too little of in the United States film industry, is the appearance of actresses of a certain age who look to be that certain age.  Wrinkles and sagging busts lend so much authenticity to the characters, who all carry themselves with such dignity, whatever burdens they are struggling with.

 

Carmen

Date: Saturday 7 October 2006
Performed by: Aida Gomez Flamenco Ballet, Spain

Choreography by: Aida Gomez

Music by: Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Georges Bizet

Lighting by: Nicolas Fischtel

Bangkok Fest 4Based on the opera by Georges Bizet (which is based on the book by Prosper Mérimée, this ballet perfectly expresses the complex, sensual passion of the Andalusian Carmen.  Set in Seville at the end of the 19th century, Carmen challenges Manuelita to a fight outside the tabacco factory where they work.  Instigating the fight, she is aressed by Don José, the Chief of Police and Manuelita’s fiancé.  Carmen seduces Don José, however, and he lets her escape, resulting in his own demotion and arrest.

Aida Gomez Some time later, Carmen is at a tavern where she is to meet Don José.  The bullfighter Escamillo appears and she is captivated by him.

The story intensifies and soon, at the bull ring where Excamillo is fighting, Carmen meets Don José and decides to end their affair by returning the ring he gave her as proof of his love.  He is enraged and as the spectators cheer Escamillo, Don José stabs Carmen with his knife and kills her.

Without a doubt, this was one of the standout shows of the entire festival.  The combination of precise technique, masterful coreography, vibrant costuming and stark lighting made for a peformance that married the familiar themes from Carmen with the energetic rhythyms of flamenco

After a half-dozen rounds of enthusiastic bows to an appreciative audience, the dancers performed an encore accompanied only by their own clapping, the intensity of the clapping seemingly mirroring the rising beat of their hearts and they stomped through their expressive steps. 

His Excellency the Spanish Ambassador to Thailand presented bouquets of flowers to the four principals on behalf of the Princess Sister. who was in attendance.


 

 

Spoofs

Tony Go take a look at Tony’s blog.  He’s a very creative artist and talented photographer who comes up with these funny doctored movie posters featuring himself.

The one on the left is of course from the pulp noir movie, Sin City.  Very violent but in a cartoonish way.  Bruce Willis at his very best.

The other one was a spoof of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a teenage comedy about the munchies one gets (wouldn’t personally know) after smoking too much weed.  It was notable for its 21st century casting (multicultural). 

The spoof was used for Tony’s blog coverage of his 21-day trip to Thailand.  Lots and lots and lots of pictures.

 

grandpalace

One of the things I like so much about spoofs is that they require as much creativity and thought as the original, if not more.  They can be both highbrow and lowbrow at the same time.


Issan Air

Issan Air 3 Speaking of spoofs, I’d like to announce Thailand’s latest airline, Issan Air.  Here’s what you need to konw to appreciate this site.

Issan is the name of the Northeastern region of the Kingdom of Thailand – Tawn’s father’s home town is in Buriram, well inside the region.  It is a primarily agricultural area and subjects in other parts of Thailand often use Issan people as the butt of their jokes.  They are the hillbillies and rednecks of the Kingdom, as it were.

Issan Air 2 Now, the flip side of this – just like the flip side of the sterotypes of Southerners in the United States – is that Issan people are known for their gracious hospitality and tasty food.  In fact, many of the dishes you may associate with Thai food (som tam – green papaya salad; gai yang – grilled chicken; khaaw niaw – sticky rice; laab – ground pork salad) are quintessentially Issan. 

Throughout Khrungthep, office workers flock to small Issan restaurants for quick, refreshing, tasty lunches.

Issan Air 1 Someone out there with a great sense of humor has developed a pretty comprehensive website complete with nicely-doctored photos showing the great service you can expect aboard Issan Air, based of course in Ubon Ratchathani!

While the airplane logo looks similar to the now-defunct Independence Air out of Washington Dulles, the pattern on the tail of the Airbus is very typically Issan.  Not to mention the fashionably Northeastern models pictured to the right.

Issan Air 4 Best of all, in the Service section of the website, there is a comprhensive listing of the food services they offer on their flights.  No surprise at all, som tam is at the very foundation of their inflight menu. 

The thing I’d like to know is, do they put the large stone mortar and pestle in the front galley or in the rear galley?  I’d think weight and balance would be a definite concern with one of those heavy beasts aboard.

Maybe they put it on the cart and as they roll down the aisle, they pound fresh batches of green papaya salad for passengers.  “Whoops, sorry sir.  Watch out for the splashing fish sauce!”

Anyone going to do a trip report on them anytime soon?

 

Outing on the Mehkhlong River

So I’ve come out to my colleagues at Bangkhonthii school.  Not my original intention, but…  Story below:

Only a half-day of class at the school in Bangkhonthii, because Ajarn Yai declared a teacher’s seminar in the afternoon to learn more about how to teach English, my understanding being that I would better understand the existing curriculum so I can bring the teaching I’m doing more into alignment with it.

Tod was unable to join as he had to go up to Chiang Mai with his parents. which ensured I’d have full opportunity to practice my Thai in spades.

The morning session was punctuated by an event providing interesting cultural insight:

We work in a classroom with two large tables, ten to twelve students around each table.  When I’m checking homework and giving feedback to individual students, I usually sit or kneel next to them.  This way I can see their face and can use that as a tool to help evaluate the extent to which they’re comprehending me.  If I ask “khawjai, mai khrap?” – do you understand? – they’ll invariably say yes whether or not they actually do.

Sometimes there is an empty chair and I can sit in it, other times I just kneel next to them, which gets us on eye level. Upon seeing this, Ajarn Yai came into the classroom and told me, in English, that she didn’t want me kneeling in front of the students, and then proceeded to lecture the students about treating me with the same respect as any of their Thai teachers.  The edict: they are to either get me a chair from elsewhere in the room or vacate a seat so that when I need to sit next to someone, I can sit in a chair.  The entire class was them made to apologize to me, twice.

The cultural insight: In Thailand, everying this about vertical levels: the head is the highest part of the body, literally and metaphorically; the foot is the lowest.  In a hall, the king/monk/teacher/parent sits on a raised dias while the subject/layity/student/child sits on the floor.  So I understand that kneeling next to the children, even though it brings us to eye level, also could be interpreted as a “lowering” of myself to an undignified level.  At the same time, from a western perspective, I’m thinking, “mai ben rai” – no problem.  I’ve learned enough, though, to not protest in situations like this that “it’s okay.”  I’m in Thailand, playing by the Thai rules, and if Ajarn Yai thinks

The seminar

After lunch, about 1:00, all of the teachers at the school (five) plus the directors of three other schools in the area and two additional teachers, convened in the main office.  Ajarn Yai spoke of this being a great opportunity to learn, about how thankful she was for her volunteers, and then gave me a jasmine garland – a sign of respect of appreciation.

Then, the teachers took turns asking me questions.  At first the questions were relatively easy and appropriate to answer, based on my experience.  “How do you find Thai children’s behavior?”  “What obstacles have you found to their learning English?”  “What techniques have you used in the classroom?” – remember, all of this is in Thai with only a bit of translation from Ajarn Yai.

As we progressed, though, the questions exceeded the orbit of my solar system of experience and knowledge: “How do you compare learning styles of Thai students and Western students?”  “At what age do Western students start independent study?”  “What skills would Thai students most benefit from?”  “How would you go about teaching leader and guide skills?”*  “What techniques would you recommend to teach them those skills?”

(*I must clarify that I think “leader and guide” in this case didn’t mean leadership skills, but rather skills that would allow them to either become tour guides or show people around.)

It finally reached a point where I had to politely remind everyone that I have no previous experience teaching children and, unlike them, have no professional training.  It would be out of place for me to offer my thoughts on some of those questions because I don’t have the necessary professional experience.  They seemed to understand that but the questions continued nonetheless.

Along the way, four additional peo ple arrived, one of whom is the local representative of the Department of Education. 

In the end I agreed that as I came up with techiniques, games, or other activities that were particularly helpful for the children at Bangkhonthii, I would work with Ajarn Yai to write them down so they can be shared with other schools.  Additionally, to help the teachers work on pronunciation, I would make simple digital audio recordings of their main textbooks so they could burn CDs for the schools.

The other thing that came up, is that the other schools want to be able to expose their students to farang as well.  So I think in December when my parents, aunt and uncles are in town, we’ll come down and use that as an opportunity for the other schools to send a limited number of children over.  We can pair everyone up and give them an opportunity to speak with the farang.

Out on the Mehklong

The seminar ended shortly after 3:00 as the rain started to fall.  The guests went to their cars and Ajarn Yai told me that she’d like me to join her and the Bangkhonthii teachers for aahan tallay – seafood.

DSCF1123 It was at the conclusion of this meal, enjoyed on the banks of the Mehkhlong River as the sun set, when I came out to the teachers.  It wasn’t my intention to do so; I’ve responded to inquiries about my personal life using the word “fan” to describe Tawn, the gender-neutral term that roughly translates into “significant other.”  Thai is one of those languages – Chinese is another, I think – in which the third person pronoun is gender-neutral.  So a person can go a long way without being too specific.

But one of the teachers inquired about my fan and asked, “Fan kong khun ben phuuying?” – Is your fan a woman?  I paused for a second and in that second weighed my options: I could either tell the truth or I could lie.  Thoughts that crossed my mind:

  • Unlike a friend in Singapore who is a teacher, my livelihood is not at stake here, nor is there any legal prohibitions to be worried about.  Culturally, Thais are generally more accepting of different lifestyles.
  • I performed a commitment ceremony in front of my family, exchanging vows with Tawn and making a lifetime commitment.  If I put the fear of others’ disapproval ahead of that commitment, what does it say about the commitment?
  • Finally, I’ve been volunteering for several months and have made enough progress and been seen as valuable enough (with Tod as my partner in this project) to be made the guest speaker at a seminar.  If that contribution can be undone with me just sharing the gender of my fan, then there is little value I can add for the children in the long run anyhow.

So I ran through all that in a split second and then responded to the teacher, “Mai chai.  Fan phom ben phuuchai.”

It was difficult to gauge the reactions: shock, disbelief, embarrassment, thinking that I maybe was just confused in my use of Thai.  Nothing outright confrontational (that wouldn’t be very Thai, now would it?) nor any rainbow flag-waving support.  I think – think being the operative word – Ajarn Yai was trying to explain to me that people can have a “phuen sanit” – dear friend – but that is different from a fan

So I’m out to my teaching colleagues.  There is a three-week break before school continues and I think Tod and I may go down there once during the break to work with the teachers on pronunciation.  We’ll see how it plays out; more updates in future posts.


Food for Thought

From the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition weekly email newsletter, this quote from Elizabeth West:

“When man invented the bicycle, he reached the peak of his attainments.  Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man.  And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became.  Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others.  Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.”

Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills

 

Logo Pills

DSCF1105 Ah, I forgot to add a comment and a picture from my trip to Bangkok Hospital!  When I received my parametacol – Tylenol by any other name – from the Bangkok Hospital pharmacy, I noticed that the pills have the hospital’s logo stamped on them.

My first question to Tawn: “I wonder how much that cost me?”

Presumably they order so much of the drug that getting their logo stamped on a generic version of it is quite reasonable.  Still, it is an odd sort of branding.

A 2500-Year Old Sanskrit Epic

Ramayana

Date: Sunday 1 October 2006
Performed by: Kalakshetra Theatre, India

Choreography and Production by: Rukmini Devi

Music by: S. Rajaram

Bangkok Fest 6Sunday evening Tawn and I caught the fourth in our series of performances at the Bangkok International Arts and Dance Festival, and walked away very impressed.  The show was Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic attributed to the poet Valmiki, and it is considered part of the Hindu canon.  Because of Indian colonisation of Southeast Asia, this story of a prince whose wife is abducted by the demon king, figures prominently in the literary histories of Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia.

The troupe of twenty-eight dancers were very skilled, a combination of martial arts, ballet, acrobatics and pantomime.  The vocals and music were provided by a group of six performers including the nattuvangar (the percussionist who sets the rythym for the entire performance) and artists performing the violin, flute, and mridangam.

One thing that I had always wondered about was the wavering, continuous pitch that underlies much South Asian music.  Finally, I learned that this musical phenomenon has a name – jivari – and is traditionally provided by a tambura (tanpura), sitar or veena, although these days a synthesized version is available and was used last night.

Things went much more smoothly at this performance than the one of Friday night.  People were on time and seated promptly.  Being a Sunday night might have been one reason, but another was that this show was attended by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri, the 51-year old third child of King Rama IV of Thailand.  Princess Maha Chakri is extremely beloved by the Thais, much more so than any of the other royal offspring.  She has managed to be a very populist princess, widely considered to be her father’s intellectual successor:

justbehind In addition to having earned a doctorate in Educational Development, she speaks fluent English, French and Mandarin Chinese and is studying German and Latin.  She plays several instruments, teaches history at one of the military academies, and is involved in numerous academic, research and social causes in the areas of science, technology, education and foreign affairs.

She gained a lot of notoriety during the 60th Anniversary celebrations earlier this year when she leaned out of a doorway of the balcony on which her father was addressing the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers so that she could snap some photos of the crowd.  He noticed her doing this and turned around and rubuked her!

Before the performance yesterday the audience stood as she entered, her anthem playing, and as she passed, the men bowed and the ladies curtsied, deeper and with even more sincerity than is usually the case.

If the next monarch of the Kingdom was to be chosed by popular election, no doubt the Thai population would select Princes Maha Chakri.