Confession of Pain

songkran_festival_08 It is Songkran, the official Thai New Year’s.  Even though the Kingdom uses the western calendar and celebrates the new year on January 1st, the Songkran festival is still near and dear to the hearts of Thais.  Related back to the court astronomers of centuries ago, who determined that the sun is at its highest over Siam at this time of the year, Songkran is a time to bathe the Buddha images in a ritual cleaning, to pay respects to your elders by pouring water on their hands (left), and of course a time for fun and mischief as Thais young and old playfully splash each other with water to abate the 40-degree heat.

songk2004-33 During Songkran, it seems like 90% of Khrungthep’s population leaves town to head back to the provinces.  The city really is empty, a virtual ghost town as I drive the streets.  For the locals, there is still plenty of opportunity to splash each other, with fathers putting arming their children with large plastic water guns and then driving them around the neighborhood on a motor scooter so they can soak passers-by. 

Likewise, groups of people set up soaking supplies on the curb: a large barrel of water, often with a block of ice floating in it; buckets; water guns; hoses.  Nobody bothers to clean their cars this week as they will just get messy again.

This year I notice that the splashing seems to be a bit more playful and less antagonistic than last year.  It had gotten to the point where people were malicious, smearing dirty water and talcum powder onto the face and into the eyes of others.  No doubt it is still wild down in the backpacker enclave of Khao San Road and the entertainment district of Nana, but the rest of the city seems a little calmer.  Maybe last year the behavior was just a release from the frustration of living under the Thaksin government, and people are more relaxed this year?


 

Since it was Songkran, Tawn had the day off work.  I didn’t, so directed him to other activities while I had a productive day writing training documents for my employer.  To celebrate the day, though, I did prepare a nice lunch of salmon en papillote.  This is a tremendously easy and effective technique for cooking, borrowed from the French.  The particular recipe was from Martha Stewart Living, January 2005 issue, and included sliced potato, baby spinach, a small serving of salmon, and a caper-garlic butter.  Very tasty and a good way to cook using only a little fat.

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Above, the stacked ingredients.  Below, folded into mezza-luna shapes.

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Above, the finished product!  Below, dessert of a baked half Asian pear with star anise and honey.

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confessionofpain1 Tawn went over to his parents’ in the afternoon and ended up staying for dinner.  After having accomplished quite a lot with work, I decided at 6:00 that it was Friday, a holiday, and gosh darn it, I’m not’ going to stay cooped up in the apartment any more.  With such determination I took a taxi down to Siam Square (I’d walk to the Skytrain but didn’t want to get splashed!) and watched the Hong Kong cop movie Confession of Pain.

Confessionofpain2 From directors Andrew Lau Wai Keung and Alan Mak Siu Fai and writer Felix Chong, who brought us the fantastic Infernal Affairs series, Confessions is a well-made movie that gives me some hope that Hong Kong cinema, which has been largely anemic since the beginning of the millennium, may yet be on its way to recovery.

Hei (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are a pair of cops who each carry deep wounds from the past, Bong’s from the suicide of a girlfriend and Hei’s from witnessing his family’s murder as a child.  These painful events drive both men in different ways, towards what they think they want, only to reach a point of conflict because they disagree on whether one should take the law into one’s own hands.

The challenge here is that the film was released in Thailand in the original Cantonese/Mandarin soundtrack with Thai subtitles.  No English.  So this was a good opportunity for me to test my ability to read Thai quickly (better than I expected) and to weigh the film on the merits outside of explicit dialogue.  From that standpoint, it held up very well.  Leung and Kaneshiro pair superbly with a great chemistry.  They last appeared in the same film in what is my favorite film of all time, Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 Chungking Express, although the pair shared no screen time in that film.  Cinemaphotography is brilliant, a cloudy and stormy Hong Kong capturing the melancholy of the overall film, which was tied together in a clever score and very tight editing. 

Sadly, like Infernal Affairs (remade by Martin Scorsese), Confession of Pain has already been picked up by Warner Brothers with Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned as a possible star.  There’s no way that the remake will do justice to the original, nor improve on it in any way.  Why bother?  Just release the original and let American audiences – gasp! – read subtitles.


 

This morning I plugged Tawn’s camera into my computer to see what pictures he had taken that I could share with you.  He has started his own blog, by the way.  Kind of a counterpoint to my perspective of life in the Big Mango.  Here are a couple of pictures he took in Kansas City that I thought I’d share:

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Top: Jenn and I give a lift to “freeloader” Emily.  Lower left: Ava is happy while out at Sweet Tomatoes restaurant with her uncles and grandparents.  Lower right: Emily plays with Uncle Tawn’s pocket square.

 

Oz Coming to Khrungthep

AusFilm I’m very excited to see that the 5th Australian Film Festival will be opening here in Khrungthep next week.  Last year I had a fantastic time seeing some very good films that might not otherwise make it to Thailand.

When I mentioned to Tod that the festival was coing up, he asked with surprise whether it had been a year already.  Sure enough, I’ve been back long enough that I’m now seeing cycles: another Songkran, another hot season, and Australian Film Festival. 

Click on the picture to the right to get more information.

 

Why Thais Don’t Use Knives

Yesterday I attended dinner for a visiting American who has been in town for two days.  Over dinner, he asked why Thais, who customarily use only a fork and large spoon as the table silverware, don’t use knives.

Pausing to consider the question, I responded that they didn’t use knives because they don’t have a need to.  For example, like in many cultures in Asia, the food is cut into smaller pieces before cooking.

“That’s not a good answer,” he responded.

Pausing again to re-consider (maybe it wasn’t a good answer?), I once again reached the conclusion that a fork and spoon were totally sufficient to eat Thai food.  A fellow diner, a native Thai, demonstrated for the guest by holding a larger piece of sweet, ripe mango with his fork and then sliced off a smaller portion with the edge of his spoon to eat with a bite of sticky rice.

“That’s still not a good answer,” he emphatically repeated.

[sigh…]

I suppose it is a good awareness-raising opportunity for me.  There seems to be a Western approach to conversation, particularly questioning, that comes across more as didactic rather than inquisitive.  For example, it seemed that the guest’s underlying message (based on where the conversation led) was that he saw  the use of only a fork and spoon as a deficiency that should be corrected, rather than just another funtional way of eating.

The more time I spend in Thailand, the more I appreciate why many people in non-Western cultures find the Western approach to conversation to be quite confrontational.

Later in the evening, as is often the case, I thought of how I could have responded to his repeated assertion that my answer was not a good one:

“Perhaps the reason that Thais don’t put knives on the table is so they aren’t tempted to use them when farang criticize the way they eat.” 

 

DSCF7892 Otto and Han reached the breaking point – too much of Singapore – and decided to get off the island nation for a weekend in Bangkok, so Tawn and I had the pleasure of their company Saturday afternoon when we met them at Siam Discovery Center for lunch at Oishi Grand Buffet, the high-end restaurant of a large Thai company that operates a range of generally Japanese-themed restaurants and eateries as well as the ubiquitous brand of bottled green tea.  We were joined by Tam and Markus, who ironically had just flown back from Singapore on business.

Right: Otto, Tam, Markus, Tawn, Chris and Han midway through the first round of food.

The price is steep – 650 baht for lunch (US$20) – but the quality is extremely good.  The sushi is top-grade and there is a teppan-yaki (grill) where you can choose entire beef, pork and chicken steaks for grilling.  While we couldn’t do it every week, it is a good place for an occasional meal.

 

Sunday morning while I met up with Otto and Han for breakfast, Tawn returned home and spent the better part of the day with his parents.  While cleaning the koi pond with his father, they talked about the condominium that we’re considering, and whether Tawn’s father was still willing to match our down payment.  Fortunately, he is.

There is an interesting mentality going on here and I’m going to push the edge of the envelope just a little to talk about it:

Over the seven-plus years that we’ve been together, Tawn’s father has evolved (s-l-o-w-l-y) in his thinking about our relationship.  The first time he realized what was going on, I had written a postcard to Tawn from the US and signed it, “love”, forgetting that his father had received his degree in the US and was fully literate in English.

When visiting San Francisco, I met Tawn’s parents for an awkward dinner, the silence of which was only broken once we were on our second bottle of wine.  On two of my visits to Khrungthep, we went out for dim sum that, absent any social lubrication, featured stilted conversation.

But the watershed moment was New Year’s Eve 2003 (heading into 2004) when Tawn was at his parents’ for the annual family party, where Tawn’s father acknowledged in a conversation that he “knew” about Tawn’s life but that he was too old to change his mind about what was right and wrong.  While he warned Tawn away from gay relationships – “two men can’t live together; there’s too much yang energy” – he at least acknowledged that that is who Tawn is.

The interesting part is that once I moved to Khrungthep in October 2005, that Tawn’s father would not cross paths with me any more.  My presence here in the Big Mango as a resident instead of a visitor meant that I was in his territory now.  This lack of contact persisted until just two weeks ago when we made the briefest of verbal and, almost, eye contact.

Along the way Tawn’s father, being of good Chinese extraction, has felt some obligation to help his son with the purchase of his first home, the same way that Tawn’s grandfather gave Tawn’s father and siblings land on which to build their homes.  As Tawn has discussed the search for a condominium with his father, his father has repeated his desire to help Tawn with a down payment, in order to “match” the money that I would put down.

And this is where the mental partitioning, the rationalizing, get particularly interesting to me:

For some time, Tawn tried to explain that our down payment wasn’t Chris’ money but was, rather, our money.  This is true since our finances have been fully intertwined since I moved here.  But for Tawn’s father, acknowledging that fact is too large a dose of reality, so he has continued to refer to our down payment as “Chris’ money” and said that he will match whatever amount I put down so that Tawn has a down payment, too.

Finally, Tawn decided it wasn’t worth the effort to correct his father and to this day allows him to continue the mental gymnastics.  Over the koi pond yesterday, Khun Sudha continued with the plausible deniability but confirmed that he would indeed match “Chris’ money”.

The whole thing is kind of funny and kind of silly.  Looking at the bright side, though, Tawn’s father is a lot more accepting and acknowledging than many Chinese fathers are.  And as Tawn put it, we’ll take whatever help we can get!

 


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DSCF7893 Sunday evening we had the second marital event of the weekend, this time a wedding between Oct and Em.  Oct is the cousin of one of Tawn’s friend Tao and was also Tawn’s high school mate.  Em is the boyish-looking groom. 

This was a huge affair – the bride’s father is a retired army general – with 1,000 guests held at a large ballroom at the Landmark Hotel.  It was a bit chaotic, truthfully!  We went to the reception with Sa, another of Tawn’s high school friends, and her husband Job.  Above: Chris, Tawn, Tao, Sa and Job.

The whole affair reminded me of a film festival reception.  The bride and groom, big movie buffs, had set up several faux movie posters featuring them, based on the posters of some of their favorite films.  Kind of like what Tony does on his blog.  (Note, you need to be signed in with a Xanga username in order to view his site.)

All weddinged out, I think we were ready to head home by 9:00.

While at the reception I missed a call from Ajarn Yai, who called to tell me that Patricia Goodfriend, who had visited the school last November, had written her a letter.  Ajarn Yai had a few questions about words that weren’t in her dictionary including “road rage”, “academically”, and “professionally”. 

 

The Chinese Connection

DoubleHappinessCalligraphic The comment was made about my previous post that the engagement ceremony mirrors Chinese custom.  That, plus the ample number of “double happiness” characters applied to all the gifts, pretty much give away the degree of influence that Chinese culture has on Thai culture.  Part of this is due to the large degree of intermarriage between ethnically Thai and ethnically Chinese families. 

Estimates I’ve read say that the all-Chinese portion of Thai society is around 14%, but that intermarriage has led to possibly as much as 80% of the Thai population having at least some Chinese ancestry.

To make it fun, though, we have another engagement ceremony and wedding to attend Sunday.  The engagement ceremony, which we will probably not make, is being held at the auspicious time of 5:30 am!  The wedding will be a major social affair, with 1,000 guests invited.  Crazy, huh?

 

A Pilot and a Flight Attendant get Engaged

Here’s an opportunity to make a difference.  There are many good causes out there and many ways to contribute.  One that I’d like to help get the word out about is the good work being done by Aaron and Tae, who are pooling their fund-raising resources to participate in AIDS Walk New York. 

aidswalklogo One of the primary beneficiaries of the fund-raising is Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an outstanding organization with a three-fold mission: to reduce the spread of HIV disease; help people with HIV maintain and improve their health and independence; and keep the prevention, treatment and cure of HIV an urgent national and local priority.

In 2006, 39.5 million people were living with HIV/AIDS world-wide and there were 2.9 million deaths.  That’s 2.9 million individuals whose light no longer shines.

You can make a contribution to the cause in any amount, anonymously if you chose to do so, through the link on Tae’s website, where you can also see the progress that is being made in the fund-raising goals.  Thank you for your help.

 


Friday was Wan Chakri, a day commemorating the founding of the Chakri Dynasty (King Rama I) in 1782 A.D.  This was also the day that Tawn’s high school friend Bua, a Qantas flight attendant, was engaged to her fiancée Pom, a veterinarian who is studying to be a pilot, in a lavish ceremony at the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel.  The ceremony was held in “The Residences,” the Hyatt’s conference room area.  The interior is absolutely beautiful, largely encapsulating the way that Tawn and I would decorate a home, so we snapped plenty of pictures of furnishings and took lots of notes.

Engagement parties are an interesting affair here in Thailand, an entire event in their own right that sometimes takes place on the same day as the wedding and other time occurs well beforehand.  Here’s a rundown of the basic process:

DSCF7825.JPG The groom arrives as part of a large entourage including parents, extended family, and friends.  They carry the dowry, which includes symbolic items such as bunches of bananas (representing many children), long dried noodles (long life), and coconuts.  Along the way, they encounter “gates,” friends and/or family members of the bride who will hold up chains (usually jewelry) that represent these gates. 

Right: About one-quarter of the groom’s entourage, waiting at another gate.

To pass by, the groom’s entourage must persuade the gate-keepers that the groom is worthy of the bride.  There is the opportunity for the exchange of witty repartee and joking, along with the paying of little bribes – err, token gifts.

Here’s the dialogue that Tawn engaged in with the groom’s Pu Yai – a respected elder (not the parents) who negotiates on the groom’s family’s behalf.  The groom is the one in the light blue tie, looking a bit fearful.  For those that know him, doesn’t he look a lot like Kelly Lim?

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Pu Yai: Hello there, what is this gate?

Tawn: Hello sir, this is the golden gate that belongs to Bua’s close friends.

Pu Yai: Close friends?  So that means you will open this gate easily?

Tawn: I would think it would be the opposite way, sir.  You need keys to open this gate.  Make sure you have the right keys otherwise the golden gate will not open.

Pu Yai: Maybe one bag of money each would be enough to be the key to open this gate.

Tawn: Let’s try and see if you have the right key.

Pu Yai:  (hands small bags of coins to Tawn and Pim)

Tawn: Whoops, sorry.  That’s the wrong key.

Pu Yai: Okay, let me try one more, then.  (Hands another bag)

Tawn: Sir, we have two gate keepers so we need two more bags each.

Pu Yai: (Hands another bag)  This is the right key, then?

Tawn: Let me ask the other gate keeper.

Pim: (nods consent)

Tawn: Yes, please come in.

The number of gates will vary, sometimes kept by just one person and sometimes by two, but eventually the groom’s entourage is allowed to pass and will end up in a main room where the bride’s parents – but not the bride – are seated.

DSCF7874.JPG What happens next is that the groom’s parents, the groom, and the bride’s parents sit down for a discussion that involves the presentation of all the gifts, and lectures by the parents on the characteristics of a good marriage.  Of course the conversation is all symbolic and the decision to allow the children to be engaged is a foregone one.  However, it continues a long tradition.

Right: Trays of the gifts that make up the dowry are arranged in the room.

Once her parents are satisfied, the bride’s friends will escort her into the room.  In this case, when the master of ceremonies asked the bride’s father, “Well, what do you say?” after the final gift had been given to him by the groom, the father replied, “What can I say?  It’s already in my hands, isn’t it?”

DSCF7857.JPG The parents have some more microphone time and the groom and the bride exchange engagement rings.  The rings are handed from the parents: the groom’s mother gives him the ring to present to the prospective bride and the bride’s father gives her the ring for her fiancée. 

Quite often, this ceremony is actually shorter than the two hours it took Friday, and is held in the morning with Buddhist religious ceremonies immediately following and then a wedding reception in the evening.  In this case, Bua and Pom haven’t finalized a date but are planning on sometime at the end of the year for their wedding.

Following the engagement, the guests – some 120 people – sat down for a full Chinese style banquet spread between two rooms.  Alex and Bill and Ryan and Sabrina, take note – they had Shark’s Fin Soup on the menu.  No PC stuff here, but stay strong!

As I predicted, it was nearly 2:00 before we returned home.  To make up for it, I ended up working straight through 10:00 in the evening, concluding my night with a conference call with internal customers in the United States.

 


DSCF6137 Condominium Search Update

This week Tawn and I have been moving rapidly towards the purchase of a condominium, a 70 square meter (700 square feet) low-rise on Sukhumvit Soi 53, one block over from Thong Lor.  While we haven’t signed the papers yet and there are still a few more hoops to go through, an offer has been agreed to in principle.

Potential house guests, don’t pack your bags quite yet.  But do stay tuned for more information.

 

Who Says You Have to Study?

This morning I resumed my Thai tutoring sessions after a two-and-a-half week interruption.  Thankfully my reading and writing has not suffered any and as I suspected, my speaking and aural comprehension are better than before thanks to my “All Thai All the Time” weekend.

Skyping (let’s make it a verb, shall we?) with my sister this morning, she related the story of what Emily, my 4-year-old niece, said when tucking her 1-year-old sister into bed this past Friday night:

“You have to get a full night of sleep, Ava, because tomorrow is a big day for you: it’s my birthday.”

Ah, kids.  Cute, aren’t they?