How Greetings Spawn Humbugs

Living outside the United States, I avoid being immersed in some of the silly, manufactured controversies that whip people into a talk radio-fueled frenzy. One of the big ones this time of year is the unbelievable anxiety some people get in over people saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Just the other day, a former schoolmate on Facebook posted how, with Hanukkah falling in November this year, there was no excuse for anyone not to say “Merry Christmas” because there are no other holidays.

“New Year’s is no longer a holiday?” I helpfully replied.

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There are many Christians who feel that their religion is under attack. I can understand why they might feel that way, although considering that Christianity continues to be a growing religion worldwide, I’m not sure the threat is real. But when someone wishes you a “happy holiday,” feeling in any way insulted or under attack seems to be a very un-Christian response. Let’s turn to the Bible to understand why.

First, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone says “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” to you, they are conveying a charitable wish, one offered with no malice. In fact, they are potentially being considerate by respecting the fact that you may not be Christian. (Not always easy to tell from outward appearances alone.) Back to the Golden Rule: you would probably want people to be warm, charitable, and respectful towards you and that’s precisely the motivation of someone who wishes you a secular seasonal greeting.

Second, Jesus admonished us to “turn the other cheek.” A secular seasonal greeting is rarely intended as an insult and certainly never causes any true injury. Follow Jesus’ teaching and move on. There are much worse insults than being given warm holiday wishes by someone. Jesus died for your sins, not because someone wished him “season’s greetings”.

Third, Jesus teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is considered one of the two greatest commandments, the other being to love God with all your heart. This teaching is about giving even when you are not receiving, about loving even when you are not loved. If someone wishes you a greeting that does not reflect your faith, surely your response should be a reflection of your faith. For a Christian, that means a response that is loving and giving, not one that is angry and spiteful.

Whatever your faith, the end of the year (especially in the wintry northern hemisphere) is a special time. May it find you healthy, happy, and surrounded by loved ones, regardless of your faith.

 

Independence Day in the Big Mango

Edit: Video is now public.  Sorry for not catching that before posting.  Thanks to Gary for informing me.

It may surprise you to hear that there was a large celebration of July 4th in Bangkok.  The American Chamber of Commerce hosts the annual festivities, which bring together not only the disparate American expat community, but also many Thais and people from other countries who have lived or studied in the US, or just appreciate a chance for a taste of real American tradition.

P1170603 Last year was my first year attending, in the company of several other American expats who had pretty much only negative things to say about the experience.  I won’t go into that episode again, suffice it to say I enjoyed it enough to not only show up for a second year, but also to volunteer for almost seven hours of working at the raffle tickets table.

While some expats take the approach of, “I don’t like the United States, that’s why I left”, I look at it from the belief that even if there are aspects of US culture for which I don’t care, it is within my ability to actively participate and influence the changes I want to see.  That’s why last year I volunteered at the Democrats Abroad table, registering expats to vote and talking up the need for change in Washington.  I’d like to think that my efforts contributed in some small part to moving the world’s perception of America back towards the right track.

This year’s event was held at the American School, a private primary and secondary school that is located just a few blocks from my condo, behind Samitivej Hospital.  Their campus has lots of trees and the main basketball court / stage area has a large roof over it, giving celebrants plenty of shaded areas to enjoy the breezy day.

Several thousand people attended, representing every star and stripe of American culture.  We had many expat families who are here on temporary work assignments, we had Mormon missionaries and young Peace Corps volunteers, we had a group of “butch” lesbians with lots of piercings and tattoos, plenty of gay couples of all ages, long-term expats who have been here for dozens of years, tourists who just happened to be in town this weekend, and of course the typical hugely overweight American men with their tiny Thai girlfriends/wives who were half their age and one-quarter their size.

Where some might have seen ugly stereotypes, I saw the diversity that is America, for better or for worse.

There were also lots of Thai families there, many of whom have children attending the American School and others of whom were there just for the fun of it.  There was a large play area set up for children with all sorts of games, including all the traditional Fourth of July favorites: tug o’ war, bucket relays, three-legged races, potato (or, in this case, rice) sack races, face painting, etc.

Below, a short video look at some of the fun.

On the food side of things, the local branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars were grilling hamburgers while the Wives’ Auxiliary were cooking hot dogs and selling the most popular item – Sam Adams beer (which is not sold here and has to be imported through the embassy!).  Bourbon Street, Great American Rib Company, Roadhouse Barbecue and Sunrise Tacos were all present, selling their specialties.  Another military service group was selling homemade apple pie and at the booth next door, Dairy Queen would put a dollop of vanilla soft serve on top.  Of course, what Fourth would be complete without a chili cookoff?

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Above, a direct hit at the dunking tank.

Most of my day was spent at the tables by the entrance where I and other volunteers hawked raffle tickets.  Fifty baht (about $1.60) a ticket for a chance to win fifty fabulous prizes.  First prize was two free tickets to anywhere in the U.S. that United Airlines flies.  We had hotel room stays, spa visits, bicycles, car rentals and all sorts of other prizes.  Best of all, proceeds went to support the chamber of commerce’s Adopt a School program, which provides support to poor schools in rural Thailand, including the building of playgrounds and providing of supplies.  We must have raised at least $4,000 just from the raffle.

So it was a fun day celebrating the 233rd anniversary of America’s declaration of independence.  I hope that those of you who were in the U.S. had a chance to enjoy the holiday, too.  For those of you outside the U.S., I hope you had a nice weekend!

Wan Visakha Bucha

Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*.  This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away.  On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.

In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected.  Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka.  It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time

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While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian.  (wian = circle, tian = candle)

The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple.  Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead.  Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom. 

The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world.  The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks).  As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight.  It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.

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On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:

  1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
  3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)

We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand.  This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.

There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices.  While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.

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After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.

I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:

Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture.  I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations.  Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.  

*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.

 

Christmas Day

Recapping my continued adventures here in Kansas City over the Christmas holiday:

At 6:50 Christmas morning the lights snapped on and two little girls bounced onto our bed.  “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!  Santa came!”

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So we threw on some clothes and headed upstairs.  Sure enough, Santa had paid us a visit overnight!  The snacks and eggnog that had been left by the fireplace had disappeared.  All that was left were a few crumbs.  Santa must have been hungry.

First things first, we checked our stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace with care.

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There were all sorts of little goodies inside.  Thankfully, no one received any lumps of coal, so we must have all been good this year.

Then I prepared breakfast: homemade biscuits with sausage and gravy.  Very nice start to a holiday, if you ask me.

After breakfast we went to the family room to unwrap the gifts that Santa had brought.  Amazingly enough, Santa had heard that Tawn was celebrating the holiday in Kansas City and had brought his present here: a picnic basket and set, complete with plates, glasses, corkscrew, cutting board, knife, etc.

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Above: Emily and Ava don’t even look as Tawn shows off his new picnic basket.

In the afternoon we headed to my grandparents’ house for dinner.  It was a tasty dinner but what I really want to share is this picture from the candied yams.  My grandmother ran out of small marshmallows halfway through completing the dish, so she had to switch to large marshmallows.  I thought it was kind of funny.

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Later, she served us a special dessert that she hasn’t made for years: homemade cannoli.  This Sicilian dessert is a pastry shell filled with a mixture of sweetened ricotta cheese and chocolate shavings and candied citrus peel.  Very rich.  She’s quite a cook and this was a really nice treat.  Below, my grandmother and a close-up of the cannoli.

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My grandmother is very talented.  Below is a picture of my niece Emily’s Christmas gift from her: a dress that my grandmother made.  On the piano in the background are two dolls that my grandmother made, too.  Not only did she make the dolls, she made the costumes for them.  She’s made dozens of these dolls over the years.

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Very talented lineage I come from, eh?

In the evening after we returned home (I have a hard time getting used to this midwestern schedule, eating dinner at 5:30!) we were nowhere near ready to go to bed, so Tawn and I went to watch the new John Patrick Shanley film, “Doubt”.

A brilliant screenplay and no doubt an amazing stage production.  However, I don’t think that it translated so well to the big screen.  The film felt very claustrophobic and I was so relieved in the one scene where Meryl Streep’s character and another character go for a walk outdoors.

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The acting was superb, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Viola Davis as the mother of the first black student at the school.  Meryl Streep did a good job as Sister Aloysious, who suspects Father Flynn of abusing the boy.  But she is such a strong actor that I couldn’t really ever get past seeing her and thinking, “That’s Meryl Streep acting like a really uptight nun.”

Still worth watching but maybe only a three out of four stars.

All in all, a relaxing Christmas.

 

Christmas Dinner

When people get married, they have to find a way to handle holidays with their two respective families.  Do they try to combine into a single, large celebration?  Or do they find a way to juggle the two families’ celebrations?

P1120959 In the case of my sister and brother-in-law, they have opted for the latter approach.  Holidays are alternated.  Thanksgiving was with my side of the family this year and Christmas Day will be with my brother-in-law’s family.  Because of that arrangement, we had our official Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve.

We will do another Christmas Dinner, a more casual one, at my grandmother’s house on Thursday.

Before I tell you about dinner, though, we were met at the airport Tuesday evening by my sister, two nieces and mother, left.  It was dark already and very cold, but they braved the thirty-minute drive to the airport to be there as we walked off the plane.

What a nice way to be welcomed to the chilly midwest!

After an easy dinner we put the girls to bed and then discussed the Christmas Eve menu.  My mother and sister had planned it out and done the shopping, so I volunteered to cook.  The menu:

  • A leg of pastured lamb my parents had brought over form a butcher in Indiana, roasted in a rosemary-garlic rub
  • A grilled pork tenderloin in a mustard and honey marinade
  • Traditional mashed potatoes
  • Roasted carrots with a light maple syrup glaze
  • Leafed Brussels sprouts with bacon
  • San Francisco sourdough bread
  • For dessert, “The Next Best Thing to Robert Redford”, a refrigerated dessert that combines the best of chocolate pudding, whipped cream, and cream cheese.

It was a pretty easy menu, which left time during the day for all sorts of fun.  First off, it snowed about an inch last night.  Not a significant amount, but enough to go outside and do a little sledding.

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Above: Me, Ava and Emily in the front yard.  I have some fun video from that but no time tonight to edit it.  Look for it in a future posting. 

In the afternoon, we completed the “gingerbread” house project.  Which more accurately would be the graham cracker house project.  Something about my nieces’ personalities could be interpreted from their decorating styles:

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After that fun project, at which copious amounts of sugar were ingested, I started preparing the dinner in earnest.  My brother-in-law took care of the grilled pork loin, but everything else was in my hands.  Here’s a look at the results:

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From top left, clockwise: the lamb, pork, sourdough bread, mashed potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts.

The dinner turned out very tasty, a nice simple meal.  The lamb is a different breed than the one sold most commonly.  It has a tamer taste and was very enjoyable.  The pork was really moist. 

The Brussels sprouts were my favorite.  I think taking the time to core them and pull the leaves apart really makes a big difference, making them sweeter.  Usually, when they are served whole, I find them a little bitter.  It is a bit of extra work, but worth it.

Sadly, I have no pictures of the Next Best Thing to Robert Redford.  My apologies.  But it was tasty.

After dinner, we headed to church for Christmas Eve service.  It was at a United Methodist church, the one my grandparents and sister and brother-in-law attend, the same one my parents were married at, the same one where I was baptized.

One observation, though: is it just me, or are protestant churches especially gifted at making upbeat hymns celebrating joyous occasions such as the birth of their savior, sound mournful?

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We returned home and the girls helped set out some snacks for Santa Claus: spiced nuts and cream puffs with eggnog to drink.  Strange, huh?  Here’s a short video in which I capture the discussion about this choice:

Happy holidays to you and yours!

And the goose is getting fat…

Is there any doubt that the holidays are just around the corner?  All over the Big Mango we’re seeing signs of the holidays:

Twinkling lights, which are already popular here, are in even greater abundance. 

Gift baskets, the staple of New Year’s greetings especially in business, are being put together, cellophane wrapped and set out for sale.  (Below left)

And the random ornament displays have been set out, including this huge deer head with psychedelic antlers which we spotted at the J Avenue “lifestyle shopping centre” on Soi Thong Lor.  (Below Right)

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Everywhere we go, Christmas music is playing.  It is very festive and not just a little strange, considering that Christians make up less than one percent of this country’s population.

But here’s the deal: Buddhism doesn’t have any catchy holiday carols.  Sure, there’s the chanting, but where are the Wan Makha Bucha carols?  Sadly, there aren’t any.

We’re preparing for our sixteen day trip in the United States, for which we depart a week from Thursday.  So much to be done beforehand and we have several projects that we would like to wrap up before that departure.

We’ll see.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in Thailand, it is to not get my heart set on having something done by a particular date.

T-day Trial Runs

T-Day.  For those of you in the United States, Thanksgiving has come and gone, nothing left except your promise to exercise a bit more this weekend and, of course, lots of leftover turkey.

Here in Thailand, though, we’re doing a delayed Thanksgiving since everyone has to work on the weekdays.  Tawn and I expect about 16 guests over for dinner this evening.  This number has changed a lot because of the airport seizures.  Brian, Ken and Vic are all stuck outside the country.  On the other hand, we have picked up one or two guests as visiting friends of invitees are stranded and cannot get home.

Throughout the week, I’ve been doing preparation work for Saturday’s dinner and testing out some new recipes, to decide what should make the final cut.

There is a recipe for roasted sweet potatoes with toasted spice rub that sounded interesting.  On Tuesday, I made a big batch of the rub and tried it on some regular potatoes.

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The rub is mostly coriander and fennel seed, with lots of chili powder, crushed chili pepper flakes, and a dash of cinnamon.  The flavor was very nice although I think some cumin would add to it.

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I also tried a recipe from my childhood: Baintree Squash Rolls.  These yeast dinner rolls have roasted squash puree which adds a wonderful color and an addictive flavor.  They are easy to make, especially in this warm country where yeast doughs rise without difficulty.

There really aren’t that many dishes from my childhood memory.  While my mother cooked all the time, I don’t have a firm memory of that many of the dishes.  West African Peanut Butter Soup is one.  These squash rolls are another.  Over Christmas I’ll have to talk with my sister and see what dishes she remembers.  Maybe my memory just needs a poke and it will kick back in.

 

Our trial run dinner on Tuesday.  This was just for me and Tawn and it tried out a cranberry sauce, the squash rolls, and the toasted spice rub on both regular potatoes and a pork steak.

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The sauce, as you can see, was very watery.  While making it, I kept thinking that there really was way too much liquid and I even ladled some out.  It wasn’t until the following day, reviewing the recipe, that I realized it was watery because I had added only one package of cranberries instead of the three that was called for!  The flavor was pretty good, although ratios were off because there weren’t enough cranberries.

My final midweek test was with pecan pies.  Matt’s partner Si is baking fresh pumpkin pie for Saturday, which is just wonderful.  I’m usually hesitant to let guests cook for my parties because most people just go to the store and buy something prepared.  This, in my narrow definition of the word, isn’t “cooking”.  But I have full faith that Matt and Si will show up with some wonderful desserts.

To provide some contrast and an alternative for anyone who doesn’t care for pumpkin (I didn’t as a child, but love it now), I started to think about pecan pie.  I have two large bags of pecans from Costco that I trucked back from the US with me last visit.  Need to use them up before the next visit so I can buy some more.

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Pecan “tartlets” after being pried from the muffin tin.

Never having made a pecan pie before, I actually went out an purchased corn syrup, supporting the agricultural monoculture that is American farming.  I thought that mini pecan tarts would be fun so I made three different sizes: small, medium and large, below.  They tasted fine but the topping just bubbled over the small and medium tarts and made for a huge, sticky mess.  It took a long time to get the pans scrubbed clean.

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Test runs finished and my menu finalized, I started my preparations on Thursday.  Cranberry sauce was first, a re-do that would this time more closely follow the instructions.

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Villa Market now had fresh cranberries on its shelves, which had been missing over the past few weeks as I prepared my menu.  Curious as to the difference between the two, I bought both fresh and frozen berries.  The price (about US$7 for a 12 oz / 300 g container) was the same and I couldn’t tell any difference in taste, texture or quality.

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The recipe starts with a simple syrup infused with vanilla, fresh squeezed orange juice is added along with the berries, salt and pepper.  This is simmered until the berries start to pop then is taken off the heat.  I don’t cook it for too long because I like my cranberry sauce to still have some recognizable berries in it.  After taking it off the heat, I stirred in a little Dijon mustard.  Sounds strange, right?  The tangy flavor goes very well with the tart berries and the citrus-vanilla sweetness of the sauce.

Friday was final prep.  After a day of working and completing some errands (our car battery died this week so we had to get a jump start from a taxi and go buy a new battery), Tawn and I stopped by the market for one final push.

The big item: homemade cornbread chorizo sausage stuffing.  This is not a difficult process but it is time-consuming.  First I have to make the cornbread, then I have to toast the cubed cornbread.  I have to cook the sausage and de-fat it.  Chop the veggies and cook them, then start combining everything.

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The nice thing is that this can be prepared in advance, refrigerated, and then baked on Saturday noon.  Trying a few bites after I was done, I have to say that this is probably the tastiest stuffing I’ve ever made.  And I was able to find locally made chorizo!

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After finishing the stuffing, I sifted the ingredients for the rolls and put them in ziploc bags, then made the pie dough and refrigerated it.  Finally, before going to bed at 1:00 am, I took the turkey breast out of the bag where it had been dry brining, rinsed it off, patted it dry, and set it back in the refrigerator to finish drying out.

Because my oven isn’t as big as standard US ovens, I’m not cooking the whole turkey – that’s been ordered from Villa and for 1000 baht (about $30) they are baking it for me and making the gravy, too.  But I am cooking a turkey breast myself, either so we have a little extra meat or because I feel guilty for not cooking the whole turkey.  I’m not sure which it is.

So here it is, Saturday morning.  Cool – about 74 degrees F – with a light breeze.  Our pool-side dinner will be fantastic.  I just have a lot of cooking to do.

As of this point, I need to finish the pies, make the rolls, roast the turkey breast, bake the stuffing, bake the sweet potatoes, make the salad dressing and go buy salad greens.  There wasn’t enough room in the refrigerator for 16 people worth of salad greens.

This time tomorrow, I’ll tell you how it went.