Archive for 2011

For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism

11 December 2011

Despite my apparent popularity as I walk any street on the isle of Cebu– “hello!” “good morning!” “how are you!”– the white man a has a checkered history in this part of the world. Magellan was the first to arrive in 1521; he was promptly beheaded by Chief Lapu-Lapu, and his crew excused themselves in short order. The next Spaniards arrived some decades later, and had what must have been the surprise of their lives when the native Cebuanos whipped out a figurine of the Santo Niño that Magellan’s crew had left behind in their haste.

Taking it as a sign, apparently, the Spaniards set about their missionary business with diligence, and had a terrific run over the subsequent 300-odd years until William McKinley took the restive Philippines off their hands. Washington was planning to liberate the country until a bevy of Republican Senators intervened and, well, actually maybe we’d better hang on to those islands after all. Following further decades of colonial oppression and attendant rebellion, MacArthur fled before the Japanese, who got their wartime use out of the Philippines most notably as a death-march locale and a favored source for “comfort women.” Then the Americans came back and finally made good on their promise: Filipinos walked free in 1946.

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Hanging out the second story window of a professional development center in Cebu City a banner congratulates “our students who will be leaving to work in the UK and Canada!” It’s a commonly felt sentiment here. “Honestly, there’s nobody in this country who doesn’t look at that and feel some envy,” said my friend Steve (a Filipino). In the Philippines, it seems, there is no higher mark of achievement than to leave the Philippines. The government actively promotes it, urging people to move abroad if they can, and don’t forget to write– overseas Filipinos send home billions of dollars annually, making up a full 10% of the national GDP. Even the Pope has chimed in, discouraging birth control in the Philippines because human bodies are the country’s biggest export. (This in an increasingly overpopulated country: one of the only net rice importers in Asia.) (more…)



Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.

6 December 2011

Cebu City, Philippines – In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It’s been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma– the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world’s most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.

The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s foremost opposition leader and President Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year’s elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Aung San Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein’s incipient reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government’s reforms in good faith.

Secretary Clinton sat down with Aung San Suu Kyi– it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence– and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma’s collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors– a move that Aung San Suu Kyi has also advocated.

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Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

29 November 2011

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:

The glasses turn meat-brushing into an intellectual endeavorFried balls and tasty greensFried deliciousShe'll burn your face off soon as look at you.Would you like some moustache with your papaya salad?Pad Thai!Calm before the evening food market
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The glasses turn meat-brushing into an intellectual endeavor

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Fried balls and tasty greens

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Fried delicious

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She'll burn your face off soon as look at you.

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Would you like some moustache with your papaya salad?

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Pad Thai!

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Calm before the evening food market



The Arkansas of Thailand

28 November 2011

On Friday I was invited out for food and drinks by my colleague, who, helpfully, goes by the English name “Sandwich.” Sandwich goes out on Fridays with his buddies, and he invited me along, deep and wide language barrier notwithstanding. Fortunately for me, one of his pals, a guy named Gai, had spent some time in the U.S., and spoke a bit of English. “What did you do in America,” I asked?

Gai lived in Springdale, Arkansas, working as an ice cream truck driver. He’s in the desserts business here in Kamphaeng Phet, running the black grass jelly factory (Made from twigs! Tastes… like twigs!) he inherited from his father, so peddling Chaco Tacos could perhaps be construed as relevant work experience. He and four other drivers covered the whole tri-state area (that would be northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma) and Gai learned two great truths about America during his time. The first, and more enduring, is that the jingle of the ice cream truck is effective at luring nubile teenage girls from poolside to sidewalk wearing naught but their bikinis and the glimmering sheen of perspiration. This was something of a revelation for Gai, and a while a great boost to his enthusiasm for the work, caused major interference with his focus on the bottom line, and led to declining sales as he cruised through certain particularly fruitful neighborhoods hour after hour, day after day, his ice cream truck jingle turned up to eleven.

The second revelation he put to me this way:

“Sam, have you ever peed in a bottle?”

“No, Gai, I don’t believe I have.”

“I think all Americans pee in bottles because stopping at the gas station is a waste of time.”

And now we all know something more about what goes on inside ice cream trucks.

He worked at this job for four months. Then he spent three days in New York, two days in Las Vegas, and then he came home to Kamphaeng Phet.

Returning the quizzical look I had given him, Gai asked: “What are YOU doing in Kamphaeng Phet?” Not selling SnoCones, no, but my six month interlude in the one of Thailand’s flyover states is perhaps no more absurd than Gai’s adventure. If you sat down to match up the Thai states with their U.S. analogues– Phuket is the Florida of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is surely the Alaska, maybe Ayutthaya is Massachusetts– Kamphaeng Phet would be lucky to be paired up with Arkansas. More likely, it would be left off the list, among the 26 leftover Thai provinces after the fifty slots were filled.

To the tourist, this town is notable only for its location alongside Highway 1, exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A convenient stopover, says Lonely Planet, which halfheartedly describes Kamphaeng Phet as “one of the more pleasant provincial capitals,” makes brief mention of this city’s ancient ruins, and leaves it, more or less, at that. A hundred kilometers to the east is Sukhothai, also about halfway between Thailand’s two big tourist destinations, and home to the spectacular ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. That, needless to say, is where the tourists stop over on their north-south journeys. Visit the ancient temples in the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park any weekday, and you’re liable to have the entire park (“A UNESCO World Heritage Site!,” screams every government billboard in the province.) entirely to yourself.

If you’re Thai, though, those ruins actually mean something. Kamphaeng Phet, which means “Diamond Wall,” was installed on the banks of the River Ping sometime in the 15th century as the northeastern outpost of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This diamond wall was built to keep out the Burmese, and with only a few lapses (e.g. the 1767 sacking of Ayutthaya– oops), Kamphaeng Phet got the job done. So I feel stirrings of pride when I board the bus in Bangkok and tell my fellow travelers that, no, I’m not headed to Chiang Mai, I’ll be getting off in Kamphaeng Phet.  “Ah, Kamphaeng,” they say, with the same steely nostalgia of a Civil War buff recalling Pickett’s Charge. “The wall.”



Sunset on Kamphaeng Phet

25 November 2011