The cutest little cupcakes show off Thailand’s packaging charm

One thing that the Thais do very well, perhaps influenced by or influencing the Japanese, is packaging.  Everything is packaged here, from the efficient and ecologically sound use of banana leaves to steam certain sweets and wrap other foods, to the excessive triple layers of an iced coffee bought from a street vendor, who will put the coffee in a lidded cup, placed in a bag, which is tied off then placed in a second bag.

IMG_6733 But all of it is very good at ensuring that the items stay enclosed until you are ready to take them out of their package.

One cute example I discovered on Wednesday night at the Siam BTS Station is a vendor that sells fancy cupcakes for thirty baht each.  You can buy the cupcakes in two- or four-packs that come in a cute little box with a cellophane window and handy handle for carrying. 

How were the cupcakes themselves?  Well, they were kind of dry and dense with frosting that tasted too much like vegetable shortening.  But they looked pretty and were neatly packaged and, really, that’s what counts.

 

A Tale of Two Papers and Too Much Blame

This is much too frequent an occurrence, and I’m not sure what it says about English language journalism in the Kingdom, but the headlines in yesterday’s editions of the Bangkok Post and The Nation demonstrate just how different the two papers’ world views seem to be.

IMG_6730 Regarding the airplane crash in Phuket a few days ago, The Nation reports that “Probe looks at human error”.  The Post sees it differently: “Bad weather blamed for crash”.

Speaking of the crash, there is wild speculation and a lot of armchair aviation investigation experts pontificating on things they know little or nothing about.  This is happening both in the media as well as in everyday conversation (as Tawn explains to me).  Different from the reporting and conversations I would expect, which tend to just be analysis and speculation about possible causes, the reporting and conversations here in Thailand seem desperate to find out who’s to blame

Two suspects that have quickly risen to the surface: “low cost airlines” and “that Indonesian pilot”. 

The first suspect falls under the group think that because they have lower costs and air fares, the so-called low cost carriers must be less safe.  One logic used for this is because their aircraft are generally older, previously flown by other airlines.  Of course, this logic ignores the fact that the national carrier, THAI Airways International, has a fleet that is – by international standards – downright ancient.

The second suspect seems to be only thinly veiled nationalism or – dare I say it? – racism.  Because the pilot of the doomed plane was from another developing country, it seems easy enough to assume that he must have been under-qualified or incompetent.  And yet I heard no such concerns about under-qualification when in July a THAI Airways A300 (a very old plane) was driven off the runway at Suvarnabhumi by a Thai pilot, who then failed to follow proper procedures and notify the control tower and the aviation authorities of this incident.  It was only discovered an hour later when a pilot from another airline reported seeing tire tracks leading off the runway and through the mud.  The muddied tire THAI plane was found at the gate.  There was surprisingly little coverage of that in local media.

Of course, none of us will know the answers until the investigation is complete, and I suspect that like most aviation accidents, there are a chain of factors that led to the accident, not just a single point of blame.

The bright spot in all of this is Udom Tantiprasongchai, the chairman of Orient Thai (aka One-Two-Go) Airlines.  Immediately after the accident he made a public statement and then flew down to Phuket to offer assistance.  When the Thai press asked him whether he thought this accident would cause his company to go out of business, he responded by saying that there were more important things to take care of now: the passengers from the flight and their families.

Bravo to at least one person who seems to know what the priorities should be. 

 

Happy Birthday to Tawn

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Above: A man and his daughter stand just underneath the car park at Playground! on Thong Lor on a rainy Sunday morning.

Monday was Tawn’s 32nd birthday.  One morning last week while preparing for work, he stormed out of the bathroom in a panic and said, “I can’t believe I’m turning 33 next week!”  After a few minutes, I managed to convince him that he still had another year to go.

IMG_6726 We had the opportunity to celebrate several times over the weekend.  Sunday morning we met a group of his school friends for lunch at Vanilla Industries on Thong Lor. 

Of the three girlfriends (and the one who didn’t show up), two are expecting and the third is very eligible for any of you guys out there looking to meet a nice, educated, entertainment industry executive. 

Afterwards, we took them to our condo-in-progress as they were curious to see what is taking so long.  Right: Sa, Ja, Job, Tawn and the available lady, Dao, inspect the construction site.

The condo is starting to look a little more like its finished self.  All the flooring has been put in and the wall between the living room and the second bedroom / office (the one that will have a pair of sliding pocket doors) is being installed, below.  Now it gives me more of a sense of what the space will really be like.  Small living room, though!

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IMG_6729 Sunday evening we headed down to the river to The Deck.  Located on the bank of the Chao Phraya River across from Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn), this friendly place has good food, attentive service, and a spectacular view. 

The breeze kept the humidity tolerable as we sat on the deck after which the restaurant is named, and we had a pleasant evening visiting with Tam and Markus (who are finally back from their wedding in Germany), Pune, Kobfa, Ken and Suchai. 

It was a small group, but a very nice way to celebrate Tawn’s birthday.  Especially since we enjoyed a couple of bottles of Penfold’s Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon!

The big day, Monday, was a bit anticlimactic.  I was going to take Tawn out to a nice Indian restaurant on top of the Rembrandt Hotel, but traffic was so bad that by the time he returned home from work, he was too tired to head back out.  So we enjoyed a quiet evening at home, instead.

On other news, I can scarcely believe that I’ll be heading to the United States again in just nine days!  So much work to do before then.  Tawn has to head up to Mae Hong Son in the north of the Kingdom on Friday and Saturday, so that will give me some more time to work on projects without worrying that Tawn feels I’m ignoring him as I type away on my computer.

 

Community says farewell and thanks to Ajarn Yai in big bash

Sorry for the delay in writing this entry.  There was a lot to post, including editing a video, so I wanted to complete it all before writing the entry.

It may seem like the events surrounding my teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School never quite come to an end, but a step was taken in that direction Friday with the farewell party for Ajarn Yai.  As she leaves her job as director of the school to become an educational evaluator for the Ministry of Education, she leaves behind a nine-year legacy of building this small country school (sixty students, five teachers) into the number one rated primary school in Samut Songkhram province and a model for rural school throughout the Kingdom.

Kobfa, Ken and I were not certain what to expect when we headed down to school on Friday, although we knew it would be a long day.  To be sure, the party was much larger in scope than I had imagined and if ever Ajarn Yai was feeling unappreciated, the day’s events surely set her mind at ease on that count.

The main teacher’s room had been emptied of all its furniture and was decorated with colorful bunting and photos from Ajarn Yai’s career and education.  Students were dressed up and running around, helping with preparations. 

Below: Chris and Ajarn Yai pose with a collage of pictures from her school years.  This is the first time I’ve seen her in anything other than a yellow “I love the King” shirt!

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Above left: Collage of photos related to my teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School; right: Ajarn Yai as class president in secondary school.

The students all had flowers for Ajarn Yai and a few of them had brought flowers for Kobfa, Ken and I, too.  Beginning with some parents who had stopped by, we each presented flowers to Ajarn Yai (in this case, jasmine garlands that Kobfa had purchased), wai’ed, and then poured a small amount of water on her hands as a blessing, below. 

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We had some time afterwards so as everyone was waiting around, we took some pictures with students and settled down for several rounds of bingo.

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We had our artistic moments, too.  Below, one of the children came charging at me while I took his picture, demonstrating his kung fu moves.  Interesting very tight area of focus right around his face and fist.  I wish I had shot from about a foot lower, though.

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There was also an interesting picture of wet footprints on the wooden decking outside the classrooms.  It had been raining earlier in the morning and the children would run around barefoot, leaving their impressions on the floor.  As the children were lining up to present flowers to Ajarn Yai, I grabbed on of them and pulled his foot into the frame of my picture to compose this shot, below.

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Pied Piper of Amphawa

In the afternoon after lunch we had a few hours to kill; the students had headed home to ap naam (shower) and rest before getting ready for the evening events.  Ajarn Yai was talking with her boss, who had stopped by.  So Kobfa, Ken and I set out to go into town, searching for some iced coffee.

I’ve become quite familiar with Samut Songkhram province, having driven there every week for a year and having bicycled through it three times.  So I conducted a little tour for Kobfa and Ken, stopping by some of the more prominent temples, the King Rama II birthplace park, and the town of Amphawa which is known for its nighttime floating market.

When we arrived at the King Rama II park, there were four busloads of primary school children (b. 5-6, I think) offloading in the parking lot.  They entered ahead of us with a few commenting about the farang and saying hi.  A bit later, as we were walking through the nicely-manicured grounds of the park, we began to gather a small following of students.

At first it was just a half-dozen or so boys who were following us, mimicking my Thai accent as I spoke to them, and being typical pre-teen boys.  But the crowd grew and soon there were a dozen or more following.  When we sat down in a shaded area with benches, they sat down near us and as their bravery grew, so did their numbers.  “This reminds me of that scene in Jurassic Park II where the little bird-like dinosaurs surround the girl,” I mentioned to Kobfa and Ken.

Within a minute, we were surrounded by about thirty students, some of whom tried practicing their limited English.  Some were game while others would shyly duck behind a friend when I asked them their name, what their favorite sport was, or where they were from.

It turns out they are from Samut Sakhon, the province in between Khrungthep and Samut Songkhram.  And, speaking briefly with their teacher, English is given even shorter shrift there than at Bangkhonthiinai.

After about twenty minutes they headed off back to the bus, but one boy wandered back to ask my name again.  When I answered, an older girl yelled out, “bpen khatooey” as if to warn me that she thinks the boy is gay or transvestite.  “Mai suphap leuy!” I scolded her – not polite at all.

The students waved to us as their busses pulled away, and we walked back over to the floating market area to drink some iced coffee at a breezy outdoor table alongside the khlong.

 

Transforming from students to angels and flamenco dancers

IMG_6625 When we returned to the school about four in the afternoon, we found a dozen of the students in the midst of makeup application and hair dressing, as they prepared for their performance later that evening. 

The girls had been made up into little angels with over-teased hair and too much makeup.  In fact, I couldn’t recognize a few of them and had to confer with Kobfa to figure out who was who.

Right, Kobfa with the angels-to-be.

The boys had also been made up, their hair spiked with gel and glitter, their faces powdered and lips painted.  It wasn’t until later when they changed into their costumes that I figured out what they were supposed to be.

Some of the boys seemed pretty comfortable with their new looks while a few of them – one in particular – really was unhappy with being dolled up.  Funnily, I took pictures of him being made up both Friday and then at Children’s Day last spring that show him with the same pouty expression.

IMG_6632 Thai culture seems to have a love affair with beauty pageants and, by extension, dressing their children up in the most fantastic costumes.

Left: The boys (again, with the exception of Jaturong – guess which one he is) were pretty insistent that we take lots of pictures of them, wanting to pose with Kobfa, then Ken, then me.

As the sun began to set, guests began to arrive at the neighboring temple where the festivities were being held.  Public schools in Thailand are usually located next door to temples as when public education was first mandated by King Rama V, this was the plan he set up.  At that time, the monks were usually the teachers.  Nowadays there is a civilian team of teachers and the monks teach only religious subjects.

IMG_6639 Some of our former students, last year’s sixth graders, stopped by to say hello, right.  I can’t believe how grown-up they are starting to look. 

Reviewing these pictures afterwards, I felt very wistful, curious what path their lives will take and hopeful that they will be happy.  It is feelings like these that make me want to just quit my job and go to teach in the public schools full-time, although I know that would open up the door to all sorts of burn-out and frustration.  It just seems like an important way to contribute to society and help the next generation.

After we headed across the foot bridge to the temple, I checked in on the students who were getting ready to perform.  The transition was taking shape and their costumes finally matched the elaborateness of their make up!

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Above: practicing my Raam Thai – classical Thai dancing; Below: the boys in their flamenco outfits dig into dinner under the watchful gaze of the student body president, who was charged with making sure they didn’t dirty their costumes.

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I don’t know how many people I thought would show up; I hadn’t given it much thought.  But I was surprised to se the series of tents filling the temple grounds, under which were ninety-six banquet tables, each seating ten guests.  The tables were full so we had nearly one thousand people there to wish Ajarn Yai well.  This must have been the social event of the season for this small community as the event was attended by the chief of education for the province, the governor, and several other phuu yai – big people.

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In addition to performance by semi-professional singers and dancers who must perform on the temple fair circuit, as well as classical Khon style dancing, the students played the angaloon (a traditional Thai instrument), did classical Thai dancing, and then performed to several more contemporary Thai songs.  There were speeches by all the phuu yai and gifts were presented to honor Ajarn Yai as a slide show of her accomplishments and pictures from her career played on the back of the stage.

Kobfa, Ken and I were privileged to be seated at the VIP table, front and center of the stage with Ajarn Yai, her boss and his boss.  Other previous students stopped by to pay their respects to both Ajarn Yai and us, and Ajarn Yai had a nearly endless stream of guests.  She said that she was disappointed that Tawn, Pat, Dick and Sandy and other people who have previously visited her school, were unable to make it.

Below, the students performing for the crowd.

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As the evening concluded about nine o’clock – twelve hours after we had arrived! – Ajarn Yai thanked us again for everything we had done and assured us she would let us know next time she would be in Khrungthep so we could meet for lunch or dinner.  She also told us, in all seriousness, that she would like to visit the United States with us sometime in the next year.  So all you readers who have come to know her, let me know if you’d like to have Ajarn Yai stop by and be your guest!

I told Tawn afterwards, I know I have no choice but to accompany her on that trip.  It seems to be some kind of karma that I met her in the first place, had the opportunity to teach at Bangkhonthiinai, and have had these great experiences.  So I have to pay that karmic price and make sure she has the opportunity to go to the United States, something she was never able to do even though she had been accepted to study at the University of Michigan.

Heading for the parking lot as the crowd started thinning, we took the opportunity to conclude one final piece of business that Kobfa and I had been considering for several weeks.  One of our students is clearly different from the rest in his own special way, and regularly gets picked on by some of the others, especially a cousin of his who calls him the very impolite word dtoot, which I won’t translate for you.

Seeing him as we were leaving, we pulled him aside and said goodbye to him.  Using a tag-team combination of English and Thai, Kobfa and I told him that if there are times that he feels different from the other children and picked on because of it, that he needs to know that it’s alright to be different.

Hopefully at the right time in his life, that message will resonate with him.  I know that if someone had said that to me back in late elementary school or early junior high, it would have made a world’s worth of difference.

Below, a four-minute video compilation of sights and sounds from the day.

 

A certain sort of jet lag

Most people I’ve spoken to about the subject tell me that they experience jet lag more acutely when flying from Asia back to North America.  For me, that direction is a piece of cake.  It is the westerly travel that throws me off.

For my first three nights back in Khrungthep I avoided afternoon caffeine and naps, and used 25 mg doses of diphenhydramine to facilitate a full night’s sleep.  And each night at around 2:30, I wake up.  The back of my eyeballs ache slightly but the lids are not heavy; I’m awake.  For a half-hour I lie still, willing myself back to sleep.

airplane-departing Finally, I get up and read a book for a while.  I’m reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, which Roka loaned me.  The story of a woman whose husband has the uncanny knack of jumping around in time, unexpectedly, only leads to my further sense of detachment from my sleep deprived body.

Still not sleepy.  I turn on the computer and log into my employer’s virtual private network.  Check some emails, send some responses, impress the boss and colleagues that I’m working at this late/early hour.

After a pair of hours, I go back to bed.  Lay there for thirty, forty minutes.  Tawn turns over, props himself up on his elbows as if he were awake, rubs his eyes with his fist and then rolls over, still asleep.  Usually I’m the one who sleeps most soundly.

I get up again.

With any luck, I’ll get over my jet lag in about ten days or so.  They say it takes one day for each time zone you cross.  Depending on which way you are counting, I crossed 14 or 10.  That will be just in time for my return trip to the United States on the 28th.

 

Last night I spoke with Otto on Skype.  He sounds like he’s doing well.  He explained that it was his decision to pull down the open letter and he was not pressured by the Ministry of Education.  I detect a note in his voice that I interpret as him not wanting to appear as having backed down, combined with a note of surprise, a “shoot, I didn’t realize that this was going to balloon into such a big thing” as he explains that by the time he had pulled it down the open letter had received several thousand hits from around the world.  He is still receiving emails from people he doesn’t know from places he hasn’t been, offering their support.

I assure him that pulling the letter down isn’t the same as taking a step back.  “You addressed the letter to your friends and colleagues and wanted to come out to them.”  I said.  “You’ve succeeded; they all know now.”

 

S’pore Ministry of Education demands teacher’s open letter be closed

As reported yesterday, Singaporean teacher Otto Fong this weekend issued an open letter to his friends and colleagues, coming out of the closet as a gay man.  This act of pride and bravery put him at risk of dismissal in this authoritarian state where thanks to the legacy of British colonialism, homosexual acts between consenting adults are still illegal.

As the weekend progressed, there were reports that members of the school’s administration were in communication and that there was certain to be a confrontation on Monday.

Sure enough, by Monday afternoon the blog entry and its more than 120 comments of support had been removed, apparently at the prompting of the Ministry of Education.  While it appears that Otto’s job is not at risk and he has achieved his purpose of coming out to his colleagues, the Ministry said in a statement that it “does not condone any open espousal of homosexual values by teachers in any form, in or out of the classroom” as “teachers are in a unique position of authority and are often seen as role models by their students.”

The open letter and its comments have been independently posted at another site here, and there are additional reports on the matter from Singapore both here and here.

Again, I am very proud of Otto’s bravery and am glad it hasn’t landed him unemployed.  I am disappointed with the Ministry of Education’s not-very-surprising response, but this has sent a very clear and positive message to hundreds if not thousands of other Singaporeans.

It appears that there has been extensive coverage of this in the Singapore blogosphere: here, here, here, here, from a self-confessed homophobe who supports Otto nonetheless here, and from one of his former students here.

 

Teacher at prestigious S’pore academy causes a stir by coming out

“Should gay people be allowed to teach children?” is a contentious question in jurisdictions around the world, inflaming the passions of people on all sides of the debate.  Now that question has come to roost in the notably authoritarian city-state of Singapore, where homosexual acts are still penalized by Section 377A of the criminal code.

otto05l On Saturday, Otto Fong, a long-time friend of mine and a science teacher at the venerable Raffles Institution, posted an open letter to his colleagues outing himself as a gay man.  In this letter, he writes that, “in order to reach my fullest potential as a useful human being, I must first fully accept myself, and face the world honestly.  I have lived long enough to know that what I am is not a disease, an aberration or a mental illness.”

The Raffles Institution is a 187-year old independent boy’s secondary school whose alumnae include Lee Kwan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore who to this day is carefully listened to as the father of the country. 

Otto’s letter quickly caused a stir.  The website received hundreds of hits in the first 48 hours and despite his only sending the link to the letter to his colleagues, it quickly made its way to his students who have been posting messages of support and encouragement.

By publicly coming out, Otto risks his professional career and reputation, and could find himself shortly unemployed.  The executive board of Raffles Institution is reportedly meeting Monday morning to discuss what actions they should take.

In the last decade, the Singaporean government has made some strides in loosening restrictions on gays and lesbians living there.  But laws prohibiting homosexuality are still on the books, threatening any gains that these citizens may feel they’ve achieved.  The former Prime Minister made headlines in April when he called into question the validity of criminalizing homosexuality if being gay is indeed a matter of nature and not of choice.

In December 2005, Otto and his partner of seven years visited me and Tawn in Khrungthep.  After toasting the holidays and their happiness, I posted a picture of them, arms interlinked, on my blog.  A few days later, Otto asked if I would remove the picture as they were concerned about the professional damage it could do to them.  A year and a half later, I’m very proud to see that Otto is now ready for the world to see him for who he is.

 

How can you help?

Despite its staunch independence, history has shown that Singapore likes to protect its international image and reputation.  That is one reason that despite the anti-gay laws, Singapore has been actively making the island a more gay-friendly place.

None other than Lee Kwan Yew spoke about the influence of the rest of the world when commenting about why the eventual repeal of Section 377A was necessary, when he told Reuters on 24 April 2007: “I would say if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world – and I think it is – then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it.”

You can help by reading Otto’s open letter and leaving your comments of support.  The more support he receives, from both local and international sources, the more difficult it will be for his employers to take Draconian measures to punish him.

 

Update as of Monday, 2:26 pm Singapore Time

It looks like Otto has removed the open letter from his blog site, for reasons that are unexplained.  It will be interesting to learn more about what has transpired.  In the meantime, thank you to all of you who shared your support.

 

Update as of Monday, 3:31 pm Singapore Time

A third party with inside knowledge at Raffles Institution reports to me that the school is on Otto’s side and his job is apparently not threatened.  The open letter was removed at the request of the Ministry of Education.  If true, this would seem to be a victory.