Sunday, February 20, 2011

Raising Money, Raising Hands for Justice

Last night I had the serendipitous opportunity to witness a Red Shirt rally being held to raise money for victims, detainees, and those hospitalized from last year's crackdown in Bangkok.  Our Proagram Director, Ajaan Dave, casually walked up to where me and my friend, Patty, were sitting outside our Student Activity Room, and were furiously reading a packet containing 36 articles of background information on our first unit coming up on Monday. Arbitrarily he said, "So I was told to inform you all when I was given word about any Red Shirt movements in the area. Well, I was given word. There's a fundraiser happening tonight if any of you are interested." "When are you planning on leaving?" I asked. "Three minutes," he said.

We closed our books and shot up to tell the others inside.  Five minutes later, six CIEE students, Ajaan Dave, and his 6-year-old son, "Pooh," were squished hipbone to hipbone in A. Dave's hatchback headed toward somewhere in Khon Kaen.  Forty minutes later we drove up to large erected stage looking out onto a red lawn - 500 tables were set up holding 5,000 ten red-shirt-wearing supporters.  Some of us vocalized getting chills.  We pulled into a parking lot where the air was palpably dusty (people's point-and-shoot cameras depicted only globs of dust particles picked up by the flash) and made our way past the fermented fish vendor stands towards the front of the stage.

Our program's intern, Josh, arrived shortly after and told us that he and his roommate, Glenn, were going to be going backstage to hold an interview with a few of the rally's organizers if two of us were interested in going with them.  Settling into the reality of where we were was too overwhelming a feat for me, so I adamantly asked to be one to go with them.  It was decided that me and my friend Jo would tag along with Josh, Glenn, and A. Dave.  After the emcee sang through four tunes, complete with feather-wearing, sequenced belly-shirt Thai dancers to get the crowd pumped, we traipsed backstage to hold our interview.  I was able to squeeze two or three questions in between Glenn's, but mostly I listened intently to A. Dave's translations.
We interviewed a retired teacher, a lawyer for the Red Shirts, and an elected provincial representative to find out why they were raising money, who received the funds raised tonight, and what their idea of "victory" looked like.  Victory, to them, would be, "supporters surrounding parliament to overthrow the current constitution and reenacting the 1997 one. Then we can go home because everything has been taken care of," the lawyer, Suwanna Pong, said.  It was also said that democratic elections were their penultimate goal, and that even "If we lost but it was democratic, that will be okay."
(Read the outcome of the interview in the New Mendela's online journal!

What was most remarkable to hear during our exchange was a firm recognition that Thailand was not a democracy as it claimed to be but "deep down, still a dictatorship."  Even after receiving a four-hour-long lecture on the history of Thai's political conflict, an enrapturing speech by a Red Shirt leader (now on the run from the government who is accusing him of being a terrorist, a claim he righteously denies), and an ex-Yellow Shirt enthusiast, the situation in Thailand was never as clear to me as it was last night.  We weren't hearing a third-party's rendition of how the people feel on all sides of the issue - we were listening to the people themselves. No one understands better what the people are dealing with than the people who are living it out in real time.  Jo and I looked back at each other with bug-eyes when we heard A. Dave translate the retired teacher's powerful words, "The more they kill, the more resentful we become; there's no stopping us."  This is a real conflict, and it is still just as prevalent today as it was in April, 2010.

There were three moments that occurred at last night's activities that sent me away in a state of urgency:  One was walking through the sweaty, red cloud of cheering Isan-dwellers (Isan is the region in the northeast where we are) and being gripped around the arm by encouraging older women, looking straight at me, with almost pleading beams strewn across their faces.  Thinking back to a few of those encounters, I don't believe I realized the sincerity of their inclusion as I did then.
Another moment was having the privilege of getting to shake hands with former Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, who came to show support for those who lost their lives to the fight and to those who continue to fight for justice.  I had a face to go with the "good guys" - it isn't every day one comes across a government official who believes in pure democracy.
The last moment happened as we walked back to our car, electricity in our speech as we all compared notes from our individual experiences throughout the night.  Not being able to understand Thai and talking as animatedly as we were, we almost missed what was being reverberated on the speakers near the back of the venue.  A. Dave chuckled out loud to himself, and someone walking next to him asked what he was laughing at.  He said, "They're talking about the 'farang' journalists. They're saying, 'Let the foreign journalists take this back with them: the Red Shirts love justice. We want democracy.'"  I internalized my pride for having been a part of this sliver in history, because a "sliver" to me is a way of life for thousands.

One last look at the full, yellow moon silhouetting a man perched atop his pick-up truck, observing with one knee up the festivities from the periphery of the parking lot, we got in the car and drove home.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thais & Americans: Compatibly Clean and Filthy

The sun was still up when my two CIEE sisters and I were ushered inside our Meh’s (Thai word for "mother") house after an intensive jaunt around the village. We stood in the threshold of our Meh's high-reaching living room as she disappeared into a side room speaking to us in Thai, despite her being fully aware of our humbling inability to comprehend anything she said. However, the three of us exchanged nervous glances in recognition of what we suspected she was saying to us. Sure enough, Meh emerged from the room carrying three towels and ushered us into the wash room. Even with prior knowledge of this Isan tradition, all three of us could not comprehend how much of a struggle taking a shower in Thailand was actually going to be.

Thais are apparently known for their incessant habit of keeping physically clean. The custom in this region of Isan is to shower at least once or twice a day. Morning, and evening. They say Thai families insist on their guests showering whenever any activity is finished as a way to feel refreshed and ready to start anew. My roommate, Gee, jokingly asserts, “Because it’s hot!” As a shameless puller of the “I want to conserve water” card, it would normally be uncharacteristic of me to bathe more than three times a week. Yet, not wanting to offend any one’s culture or nostrils, showering is a habit I have had to urge myself to take up since I’ve arrived here three weeks ago. But what is most interesting to my non-traveled eye is how, in this country, other forms of cleanliness are utterly disregarded.

Heaps of trash line the bending roads in Khon Kaen, roads barely wide enough to squeeze in two lanes of traffic (let alone bus stops, vendor stands, and pedestrians). Potted plants and grassy medians assume the role of public trash cans, even on the main streets that run through the city. I recalled the days as a Girl Scout when our community service badge could be fulfilled after working a few sweaty hours at a park with our little litter-picking tools, and how in the U.S. a clean community translates to a conscientious community. So with this perspective, my initial impression of the inhabitants of Khon Kaen was that they were a somewhat disorganized community of people. Yet, according to my roommate, I come across as irresponsible for neglecting to take care of my personal hygiene. So the question is, do we as Americans and Thais, have the responsibility to share our cultural subjectivity with one another in hopes that it catches on, or will these differences eventually become cultural barriers between us?

As my two “sisters” and I stepped out of the washroom, with our soaking wet sarongs pasted to our bodies from the soap we forgot to wash off, it didn’t matter that we had a frustrating and relatively unsuccessful experience. What mattered was that Meh saw us fit to eat according to the standards she lives by. We conceded to wash our bodies -- would it be too brazen to encourage Thais to clean up their backyard? We could make a day of it: we bring the litter-pickers, they bring the Singha beer.