Thursday, September 30, 2010

If I'm a "Farang" then...

Farang = Thai word for foreigner. "Funny, awkward, sweaty. Likely a sucker for overpriced services and unwanted solicitations but hey, no worries. We're glad you're here for tourism. Holy Buddha, look at her white skin."

This is what I humorously imagine most Thai people think of foreigners like myself upon first glance. Well, not the last part for everyone. I hope to imagine something else in the future. Right or wrong, from what I hear this impression is about accurate. Farang is a loosely used term for any kind of westernized foreign resident in Thailand. However, there are a few very different reasons why foreigners find themselves in Thailand for an extended stay beyond their vacation or honeymoon. For brevity, one large group includes exchange students, english teachers, and researchers (myself included) who are interested in learning about Thai culture. We come here to work, study, and enjoy Thailand for a period of time anywhere from one month to several years, while some of us stay for life. On the other hand, an inordinate number of legit and illegit NGOs entice foreign volunteers and/or self-proclaimed do-gooder missionary types here to make a difference where needed OR to misguidedly "save" others. The best of these do exceptional work and increase mutual understanding for the better. The worst of these manipulate the system and destroy native cultures in the process.
In contrast to that group of foreigners who are mostly young people, a group of more mature expats bring more by way of commerce and live very contentedly in Thailand. They include businessmen, couples, and retirees. Getting more from their foreign incomes and pensions, they afford a more care free way of life on "Thai time" and while paying for things in baht instead of dollars, euro, or pounds. Active and financially stable, this group of farang supports local economies, the arts, and their communities considerably. Thirdly in my very abbreviated list of stereotypical farang are men- young and old- here to find true love and make an honest living OR, to put it bluntly, in order satiate a desire/perversion with a fleeting pleasure in Thailand's rampant sex industry. Arguably, both these situations involve extreme risks for foreign men in Thailand. I hear from the men firsthand about the very real pleasures and pains of getting involved with Thai women and their families. Overhearing the conversation of an 80+ year old american billionaire retired here at 30 chatting about the kind of girl he'd "like to have next" at a family cafe, viewing pairs of teen boys with men my grandfather's age filling the chairs at Sunday brunch, not to mention hearing about the accepted infidelity that occurs more frequently I'm told, all could blur any ol' catholic school girl's vision. But when I find myself jumping to conclusions, I attempt to remember that no culture is exempt from the narrow perspective of outsiders, like the unlucky subject of a photograph taken from the wrong angle. It's good to remember something positive when the negatives pile up. For example, there are definitely those things I appreciate about Chiang Mai culture, let's say, than NYC culture. No one throws you the finger for not crossing at the stoplight, honking is minimal, and patient customer service is a given. =) These generalizations aren't fair to everyone, but my awareness of them gives me an understanding of what goes on around me for now.

All present frustrations aside, being a foreigner and/or American is a positive thing in Thailand. In fact, the word farang could come from the word for Frenchmen or from the word for a piece of fruit-neither being a bad association. Make friends here and be ready for a photo shoot with the whole family-instant celebrity. A good deal of the time Thai people in cities like Bangkok and Chiang mai play American music, watch American movies, and put up signs in English for us and for them to listen/watch/read, to be more western and accidentally, to make us feel at home. Amazingly, I have a handsome, native Thai trainer at the local gym who sings the lyrics to songs by Van Morrison and Britney Spears unabashedly and with a Thai accent. I listen happily as I sweat (from exercise this time) as I dream of fitting into Asian women's sportswear. For now, let it be known that it is possible to be an informed and good-humored farang who can appreciate those parts of my Thai surroundings I'll never wrap my head around.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friends with Perspective

As many long-term travelers do, I grapple with the new reality of living and working in a place where I don't know all the rules. Speaking the native language is a struggle even after an intensive course at SEASSI. It comes to mind that one of the irreplaceable values of travel is Perspective. Not always easy or pretty, warming up to life abroad means it's time to stretch the mind like an elastic band.

My new Chiang Mai buddy is U.S. Fulbrighter Natalie Jesionka, previous reporter for the United Nations, current professor of international media and journalism at Rutgers and CMU, and founder of the PRIZM PROJECT and Shatter the Looking Glass. In short, Natalie's global perspective encompasses first-hand encounters with human injustices, familiarity with issues of various media outlets distributing world news, and paths forged to bring help to others. On Sunday, together with two female seniors from CMU, we ran a PRIZM retreat at a shelter for trafficked girls ages 6-16. It was emotionally and mentally difficult for me to understand the unfair complexity of their situation and this aspect of culture here, but the experience helped me see a bit into the girls' lives. It was a great day. The CMU girls translated for us when we asked questions to get them thinking: What is beauty? What do you want to be when you grow up and how will you get there? Being polite, they answered. And to the second question: Soldier(s), cop, ballerina, nurse, teacher. We had an inner beauty fashion show with dresses they made and wore. They gave me a few bracelets made during our last activity. Wish I could post pictures of their beautiful faces but safety comes first for the responsible blogger. Pictured above are their telling self portraits.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Familiar Faces, Books, and Silks

An exhibition of Pinaree's opened the museum at the house of Jim Thompson, the American entrepreneur who famously revived the Thai silk industry and whose vibrant life ended abruptly with the unsolved mystery of his disappearance in 1967. Visiting the hodge-podge teak abode staged with treasured objets d'art, I felt at home. In addition to all the time I've spent working in museums, some previous reading helped me know the story and studies from my MA at the BGC, to identify the art. A trip to the gem of a library next door kept me flipping through albums of past exhibitions and seeing photos of Princess Sirindorn. Her role is so important to celebrating Thai art and culture that her birthday is Thai Heritage Conservation Day. HRH recently visited Fulbrighters in the spring of 2010. Also photoed was her friend scholar Dr. Henry Ginsburg on whose collection of SEAn textiles I wrote my thesis. Interning at his mother's gallery with oodles of exquisite and antique costumes and textiles is among my fondest memories of learning in the city. (An evening course at the Met with a curator of Islamic art is up there on the list as well!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thai Hospitality & Artist Pinaree Sanpitak

Exhibit of Pinaree's famous soft breast sculptures. Not photographed by blog author*

Left JFK for a full day of flying. After such a long trip, my first taste of Thai hospitality was especially unforgettable. I rode to my hostess' via motorsaay taxi. Weaving through traffic and shifting with curves in the road, I felt the wind in my hair and the heat of Bangkok rush behind me.

An afternoon with Jeff and renowned Thai artist Pinaree was a special pleasure. Thanks to Oriana, a friend at West Dean, for introducing us. Lunch filled my tummy with tasty Thai curries, pomelo, bean desserts, and white wine. Pinaree's works-in- progress resemble pieces in her recent show in NYC, except for newer breast stupa-shaped food moulds popular with restaurateurs. There isn't anything like an open air studio populated by canvases, sculptures, and paint tubes to inspire the artist within. Feeling creative gives me hopeful expectations for the busy months ahead.