Monday, October 30, 2006

Today My Grandmother Sold Me Porn: My Story

We get solicitors all the time at the office. In the little time I’ve spent there I’ve been solicited children books, dental equipment, and electronic massage therapy machines. But the most business is done by the lottery. Work comes to a standstill when the small army of lottery salespeople enters the office in their flannel shirts and sombrero-like hats.

Thais play the lottery religiously. One of my friends plays the underground lottery, the gov’t controlled lottery, and the lottery on the internet. Another PCV told me that his friend spent four hundred baht on lottery tickets, won one hundred baht, and then took all his friends out for beers to celebrate.

There is a saying in Thai, “Poor people play the lottery, rich people play the stock market.” Usually the lotto solicitor will approach me, open their briefcase of tickets, and smile. And I try to think how I’d say, “Poor Peace Corps Volunteers play fantasy baseball.”

I first met Yay Nang Bo a little while after I started hanging out at the local gov’t office for the comforts of air conditioning. She’s a pu-soon-ayoo, or elder, much respected in my community. Every other week, she’ll come into our office, dressed in Khun Yay-garb, a pasin skirt and top, and sell her wares. Yays speak only Lao, and are almost impossible to communicate with. When she first approached me, her briefcase made me think she was selling lotto tickets.

This is the classic Khun Yay attire.

I pre-empted her. “Hello grandmother, no thank you.” Then she pretended not to understand my perfectly fluent Lao, and opened her briefcase. “Um, what are you selling grandmother?” “You want to buy? Many Japanese girls, very pretty.”

Yay Nang Bo sells hard-core porn.

She sold better than the lotto. There were crowds. Instead of looking for lucky numbers, people scanned the still-shots on the backs of the discs looking for Korean and Japanese girls. Women, men, bosses and subordinates all had piles of porn stacked on their desks next to their reports. And she comes every other week.

So you might think that Thai society is open and honest about sexuality. Or because simple Thai words have sexual meanings, like “to take, to help one’s situation, to do homework,” you might think that Thais talk about sex all the time. When in actuality these slang phrases probably evolved because Thais couldn’t talk openly about sex, and each connotation came with an a-tonal wink, meaning more or less, “in the Biblical sense.”

Last week in Udon Thani, we had an AIDS conference for PCVs and their counterparts, hoping to inspire projects and help develop relationships between them. To break down the cultural barriers preventing us from talking about sex without shame or giggles, we played stupid games that got the giggling out of the way first.

A PC staff member asked me why I thought Thais weren’t scared to talk, and offer opinions and ideas at our conferences. We had just finished a game where we pretended we were all condoms and penises. We sit on the floor, wear casual clothes, and run around a lot. Definitely not what a usual Thai meeting is like.

Fittingly enough, at this particular conference, my roommate and I had a visitor for a couple nights.

I awoke one night to find my roommate standing next to his bed with his back towards me, holding a blanket behind him. “Dude, go to bed man, it’s like, 3 in the morning or something.” Only it wasn’t my roommate at all, because he was sleeping soundly under the covers.

I woke up the next morning and told my roommate the story. Apparently two nights ago, he had seen a ghost standing in the exact same place, and had trouble breathing when he awoke.

And in Thailand, Halloween was a couple months ago.

So we casually told some of the Thai PC staff about our “trick of light” as we agreed to call it. “Did you remember to prostrate yourself before the Buddha the night before?” one man asked me. “No, we forgot to do that.” After carefully investigating the matter, one Thai told me that the front desk said that the hotel was built near an old battlefield, and that the ghost was probably a soldier.

One man told me, “One time, long ago, I went to hotel with my girlfriend, and we had fun together, then we fall asleep. We have the same dream. A girl with long hair visit both of us. I forget to ask her for lottery number. Please do not forget. Ask your ghost lottery number!”

After a long day at the conference, the HIV staff were together discussing all the things we messed up, when a woman came in to speak with our PC staff liaison, P-Funk. P-Funk came back into the room shaking his head, and told me, “You’re not going to believe this, but she wants to talk with you.”

“I am the hotel manager,” she said. “I hear you have seen a ghost two nights in your room. Could you describe it to me?” After retelling the story for the twentieth time that day, she asked me if I would like to switch rooms. I told her that I planned on staying in my room, that I would be sleeping with a camera at my side to take the ghost’s picture. “Make sure you take video,” she said, “it won’t show up if you use the flash.”

P-Funk generously let us borrow a Buddha image to place on the bedstand that night. We never saw the ghost again.

Four women wearing flannel and sombreros came into the office today. Yay Nang Bo had already come and gone by then. My friend was showing me all his new porn as I told him the ghost story. “I feel lucky this month,” he said, “I’m going to see if they have my lucky number. Do you want me to buy you a ticket?”

I would be a rich man, if only I could’ve gotten that ghost to talk.


Even more difficult to get than a ghost photo is one of me working. Here it is folks, caught in the act. Photographic evidence!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Environmental Art Education And My Ascension to the Second Grade (Fingers Crossed)

My first two months in Thailand, Peace Corps trained me to analyze community needs, build relationships, and develop projects through a long process of community integration. We threw around words like stakeholder and sustainability. In actuality, my projects have come about via happenstance and luck. This week I did an environmental art project, and it followed this same wacky pattern.

Months ago, I brought two local nurses to an HIV conference regarding orphans and vulnerable children. We participated in an activity where we made clay sculptures of childhood memories. Most of the Thais sculpted water buffalos. I sculpted my father’s terror-stricken face the day I ran him over with my sister’s bicycle.

He had just returned from work to find me hauling ass down the hill on an oversized bike. I guess I borrowed my sister’s bike because mine wasn’t going fast enough. I did not, however, learn to use the hand-brakes on my way up. Why, exactly, I veered toward my father upon realizing I wasn’t able to stop remains a family jibe, ridden with metaphor and Oedipal speculation. But I will always remember his face when it happened. I assure you; my face had the same panic-stricken look of surprise, only younger.

After the activity was over, we collected all the sculptures and displayed them for everyone. As you see, mine was labeled simply “Brian’s Dad”. However, only ten or so people heard the story explaining it. Many of the conference attendees asked me if I was beaten as a child. To which I probably smiled and nodded.

I’m not sure if my counterparts took anything away from the conference, but they remembered that given twenty minutes and a mound of clay, I can make a discernable face. A skill! Come to think of it, two of my most developed skills are clay sculpting and handwriting, which would place me in high consideration for advancement to the second grade. I just need to work on my sums.

Last month, one of those nurses in attendance asked me to help her teach an environmental education day, but with art education as well. So I asked some PCVs who were teachers and artists to help me think of some activities. Eventually we came out with a morning of art education consisting of drawing, coloring, and National Geographic collages. Before lunch, we planned to make trash sculptures, and then take a forest walk and plant trees in the afternoon. A real project!

The site of the training would be a school in the farthest village in my town. The village is made of almost entirely of rice farmers, is very isolated, and is probably my favorite. When they’re not planting rice, all the adults are usually found sleeping in a mass hammock setup, where the nurse goes around to each hammock and does health checkups. When I’d go with her to see the village, I’d plant myself in one of the hammocks hoping to converse with someone, and then wake up five hours later.

Nurse Pun (apple) came to pick me up yesterday to take me to the training. I stepped in the car, put on my seatbelt and started laughing. “Nice shirt,” I said. “Why are you laughing? This shirt has a leaf on it, today is about the environment.” “Yes, Pun, but that’s a marijuana leaf.”

Pun at the Hospital's Beauty Pageant. I noticed the Hospital Beauty Pageants are a little different than the ones I remember from home...

The first activity of the day was me teaching the kids how to use crayons. A dark outline, filled with a lighter fill, in case you’ve forgotten. I asked the kids what they wanted me to draw. I had come prepared with a beach scene, forest scene, and a waterfall. Boy, was that dumb. I was bombarded with the entire roster of popular comic book heroes, the only one of which I knew was Superman. So I drew an entirely unsatisfactory picture of Superman, as the kids yelled out all the mistakes I was making. “The suit isn’t red! The boots are higher! Superman RETURNS!” I received an S- for my efforts.

Then we asked the kids to listen to a nature cd, and draw what they hear in the music. Pun and I drew our own drawings, and as I was putting the finishing touches on my waterfall scene, I turned around to see this:

Staring right at me.

In a previous blog I had referred to this man as Johnny Rice Farmer, insinuating in a way that he is representative of the average farmer in my town. In no way is this man average. I had met him many times, and refer to him (and to every male his age) as “father”, which is very convenient considering my limited name-memorizing ability.

The first time I saw him was at a meeting of organic rice farmers. We all sat eating papaya salad and conversing, when I noticed a man in my peripheral walking towards the pond in only a loincloth. He proceeded to walk slowly into the water, dive, and re-emerge holding a fish in each hand. He walked back up, deposited the fish in a bucket, and breathed deeply as he looked contemplatively over the water. I swear to God this is true.

He sat down on our mat, and I noticed his piercing blue eyes as he looked me over. Before speaking, he would take a deep breath, lean forward, and make it clear he was ready to speak. But he didn’t just talk, he expelled words from the depths of his lungs. I noticed he was missing a lot of teeth, but where there were none on the top, the bottom were present, and visa versa. He had one full combined row; each tooth doing the work of two, alternating like zippers.

“AH! Hello, you scared me,” I said to the owner of these menacing eyes. After exchanging pleasantries I asked him to take a sheet of paper, some crayons, and pencil. “We’re drawing pictures of the environment,” I said. “KaPOME! (yes)” he responded.

Our next activity was the National Geographic collages. I had previously cut out pictures of environmental images, to help inspire discussion. Some of the images were beavers, lions, or coral. Others were factories, motorcycles, and forest fires. I did not get the kind of discussion I was hoping for, basically a “pollution is not pretty” mantra voiced by the kids. As I was concluding that maybe the kids were a little young to be discussing the dichotomy of industrialization creating jobs and pollution, I noticed a student eating the picture of high rise Chinese apartments. I offered him a piece of gum in exchange for the photo. He declined.

After a break, we used the trash from the snacks and drinks to make trash sculptures. Most of the kids sat around in circles throwing drink boxes at each other, but one of the groups showed some real creativity. As I was getting up from asking a student to please not stick straws up his nose, I saw this other group was tying string around two plastic cups making an elementary telephone. I was genuinely impressed until they got bored of the idea, and tied the cups to their heads like headlamps. One kid spent the rest of the hour walking around the room screaming into one end of the telephone, while the other end dragged behind him on the floor.

Pun and I ended the activity by explaining decomposition, and the wonders of recycling. “What are the two kinds of trash?” I asked. I noticed a kid picking up two handfuls of trash, consolidate them, and then proceed to hurl it out the window. One thing I do enjoy about speaking English in a non-English speaking country is that no one can understand my aristocratic, high brow language. “Dude, what the fuck?” I asked him in English, followed by, “Please throw away your trash in the bag.”

In the afternoon, we split into groups and followed around a local community leader, who showed us around the forest. He identified trees for us and the kids collected and painted leaves. My community leader was a man wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt with a picture of a saddle on it, reading, “Ride Me.”

I asked him if, in the past year, he had seen a fire in the forest. He gave me a look of total confusion. The wrong tone look, where you are absolutely positive you said every word correctly but one, and that one word has five different tones. Fire = Fai. So I worked my way through all the tones, and he responded positively to two of them. On the walk back to the school, I checked my dictionary. Apparently in the past year, the man has seen two of these four things: a fire, electricity, an interest, or a mole on the skin.

To cap off the day, we planted trees in the school field. We attached name tags to them all, and promised to take care of them. Looking over our completed work, Pun asked me, “What’d you name your tree?” “Ralph Nader,” I said, “he ran for president on an environmental platform.” “Oh. Uh-huh.” “Did you understand that?” “No.” “He likes trees. A lot.”

As we collected all the supplies, I got up and turned around to find Johnny Rice Farmer sidled up next me on the sly. “Jesus, you gotta stop doing that (Eng.). Hello father, are you well? (Th.)” He handed me a drawing of a temple surrounded by trees and a mountainous horizon. “I FINISHED MY DRAWING!!!! AHHH!” I inspected the piece. With a bead of sweat upon my brow, I came to the demoralizing realization that the apprentice had eclipsed the talent of the master. The scale! The intuitive use of tree coloring- not only greens but blues, yellows, pinks! The road leading to the temple showed a clear understanding of the vanishing point concept. This man was obviously well beyond me, already drawing at a middle school level. I wrote an O+ on the back, and handed it back to him. “The O’s for Outstanding,” I said. The + thingy means you gotta add something, I think.

Again with the Sums.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Deadwood: A Hell of a Place to Live

Kev took it out of the bag, and slapped it down on my table, letting the contents flow out over itself. Giddy from our new purchase, we began divvying it up between us. Three people, 1200 baht, not bad. This will keep us busy for a couple of weeks. Easy. Then we’ll just have to find something else to entertain us when we’re not busy working for the Junta.

Deadwood. Season 1-2.

If you’re not familiar with this show, and judging by its recent cancellation, you’re not, it’s a Western original HBO series. Based on the historical town of Deadwood, South Dakota, the series follows the stories of both factual and fictional characters as they negotiate the rough waters of corruption, greed, prostitution, and violence that define the era.

Reading the back of the package, my friend noted, “corruption, greed, prostitution, drugs. Huh, sounds kind of like Thailand.” He sat back, forgetting what he’d just said. Never thinking someone might actually take him seriously. Maybe might even watch the series with a specific eye as to how closely these two communities resemble each other.

He was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Here’s a little rundown of some of those characters, and some of their counterparts in the lives of PCVs.

Deadwood: Al Swearengen
Thailand: Nayok TAO

“I declare myself leader of this meeting as I have the bribe sheet.”

Al Swearengen owns the Gem Saloon. He’s a cutthroat, deceiving, and corrupt pimp. He is the leader of the camp because he has his hands in the most pots, stealing everything he can. Alternatively, he is the driving force behind setting up a stable government, and creating some kind of law and order, if only so he can control it, break it, and unsettle it for his own personal profit.

Minus the aptitude for violence, that’d pretty much describe the prototypical Nayok. Except that my Nayok own ostriches. So there’s that.

Deadwood: Doc Cochran
Thailand: Motivated Counterpart

“Hell, I’ll do it Pro-Bono! That means it won’t cost ya nothin’”

Doc is an educated, moral man who is probably the most useful, irreplaceable member of the camp. At no other point in the show is another doctor even mentioned, and this one serves the medical needs of every character at one time or another.

A motivated counterpart is not only the life and blood of a community, but also the saving grace of a PCV’s time at site. Without a counterpart interested in working with us, we can’t do anything at all. They’re the ones with the tools, the contacts, and the time. We’ll only be here two years, and well, are about as useful as the gimp.

Deadwood: AW Merrick
Thailand: Thai TV Channel 11

“I believe in the 4th Estate, and here I find myself- an instrument!”

Yes, that is Ned Rooney, Dean of Students from Ferris Bueller’s. Glad to see he’s still in the business. Merrick is the editor of the Pioneer, the local daily newspaper. He’s a dedicated, righteous man who intends to provide the camp with unbiased opinions and news regarding the ever-shaky political future of the camp and its stakeholders.

Thai TV is the public service station of Thailand. Formerly of the Prime Minister’s office, the network is supposed to be providing important news to Thais regarding changes in climate, whether political or meteorological. Both forecasts, according to channel 11, are sunny.

Deadwood: Calamity Jane
Thailand: Drunk Thai Guy

“Maybe I will have a fuckin' drink, for sociability's sake and 'cause I'm a fuckin' drunk.”

For two seasons, Calamity Jane is completely, and unceasingly, fall-down drunk. I fail to realize what purpose she has on the show.

Drunk Thai Guy, on the other hand, is an absolutely necessary part to Thailand. What else would I rather hear yelled at me from across the street than, “Whiskey Rice! You You Whiskey!”? Drunk Thai Guy must be commended not only for his diligence, but most of all, his endurance. There is nothing weird, in any way, about him drinking his third beer before 9am. Sometimes, during the rainy season, DTG will change roles and become Johnny Rice Farmer.

Deadwood: Ellsworth
Thailand: Johnny Rice Farmer

“A working fucking gold claim, Joanie, and thank you for allowing me my full range of expression.”

Ellsworth is the moral backbone of the series. He is hard working, well-liked, and honest. He represents the vast majority of people at Deadwood- prospectors. During the day, while all the political hubbub is going on in town, Ellsworth has his legs knee high in creek water looking for gold. He marries rich.

Johnny Rice Farmer is Isaan. He’s bent over, planting rice seeds every day for weeks, then hibernating for months before harvesting those crops. Johnny father, his father’s father, and his father’s father all planted rice. Johnny will not be marrying rich; he in fact already married his 12 year old neighbor when he was a teen too. Like every member of the majority, it’s his vote that counts. And in my village, that’ll be less than 200 baht.

Both Ellsworth and Johnny Rice Farmer win the I Have One Night Left in Town, Who Do I Choose to Hang Out With Prize.

Deadwood: Cy Tolliver
Thailand: Factory Owners

Cy Tolliver is the proprietor of the saloon competing with the Gem. He’s new to Deadwood, and to be honest, couldn’t care what the hell happens to it as long as his pockets keep getting fatter and fatter, know what I mean?

My town has over 15 factories, all contributing to the size of the pockets of the Nayok, its owners, and if you believe in trickle down economics, Johnny Rice Farmer. Unfortunately for Johnny Fish Catcher, the river is polluted and all the fish are dying. Also it smells like rice whiskey when it rains. Factory Owner is easily confused for Drunk Thai Guy.

Deadwood: Francis Wolcott
Thailand: Crazy As Shit Ex-Pat Guy

“I am a sinner that does not expect forgiveness. But I am not a government official.”

Francis Wolcott brings money to Deadwood. As a geologist preparing the way for George Hearst by day, and sadistic murderer of prostitutes by night, this is a man whose transgressions must be protected.

Crazy As Shit Ex-Pat Guy is showing up more and more frequently at the night market, usually checking out the Army Surplus tent. But for his paler skin, CASEXPG can also be easily confused for DTG, with the obvious observation that the young teenager serving him his drinks is also his wife. Thanking God that Viagra was made generic, CASEXPG spends his foggy days wondering how it all got to be so good, and sending his young bride to beg the local Peace Corps Volunteer to teach him Thai.

Deadwood: Jewel the Gimp
Thailand: Peace Corps Volunteer

“[To Jewel] Well open your mouth, Jewel, and say something we can’t fucking understand.”

Jewel is a directorial technique to make Al Swearengen look like not such a bad guy after all. For whatever reason, he tolerates Jewel, a physically disabled and mentally handicapped chambermaid. She is certainly an oddity serving at the local brothel, and her face is handicapped in such a way as to make her permanently in mid-smile. If you’re a prostitute and you need a gun for protection from Al, Jewel is who you go to.

Like Jewel, we PCVs have very little useful skills, and a minimum of conversational ability to express those skills that we do possess. Our one ability is to bring undying enthusiasm and motivate Motivated Counterpart to help get that elusive project off the ground. We do a lot of smiling and nodding. At the TAO, our very presence makes our TAOs “Hi-So”. If you need a new ringtone on your cellphone or want to know if white people’s stomachs can handle sliced papaya, I am who you go to.

By the way, I’m pretty sure that Jewel is actually mentally and physically retarded in real life. So I’m going to hell for that one.

Deadwood: Wu
Thailand: Peace Corps Admin

Deadword has a large and hard-working Chinese community. Wu himself owns a pig farm, which is why he is important. If you mouth off to the wrong man, get caught cheating at poker, or touch up one of Al’s prostitutes, your mortal remains will be quickly digested by Wu’s pigs. (5$)

If you are a PCV, and ride your bike without a helmet, get on a motorcycle in a country where only the well-off have cars, or forget to tell your program manager you’re going to Bangkok for the weekend, your mortal remains will be swiftly taken to the airport and brought back to America. No warnings. (Free of charge.)

So that’s either proof that Thailand and the Wild West are similar scenes of corruption and treachery, or verification that given a couple hours and a keyboard, I can make anything sound pretty similar to anything else.

I didn’t even mention the prostitution and drugs. My god.

But there is one thing that Deadwood has on my town. It isn’t the immense untapped natural resources, the beautiful tamed horses, or even the cool, intimidating name.

Facial hair. The staches, the handlebars, the fu-manchus, the flavor-savers, the rollie fingers, the BURNS, baby!

It’s exquisite. Even the women can grow a better beard than I can.