Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 49.5
SNAKE SKULLS AND ICE CREAM CONES
Years ago, before I was exposed to farang focused Thai themed websites and I learned via return email that I was just an ugly American totally insensitive to Thai culture; I only had two interests, to love and to be loved. I now know that this is wrong and I really shouldn't be allowed to come in contact with foreigners; but times were simpler years ago and I used to lead with my heart. One day I was wandering around in a market place in a rural Thai town. Down by the river was a store that no one had an interest in. I guess it was too far to walk. There wasn't really anything interesting on display or for sale. Then I noticed that on the back wall on shelves were snake skulls. BIG snake skulls. I am deathly afraid of snakes. Any snake, any time, any size has my complete attention. These skulls, and there were lots of them, were enormous. Extrapolating the sizes of the snakes was horrifying. I stood alternately attracted and repelled by evidence of life that rules by fear and predation without the complications of morals or philosophy. Presently a back door opened and out came a grandmother and a baby. Much smiling. I love Thai children and babies. Away from the crowds and away from the traffic and away from other farangs I felt as if I was in a world that just included grandma and the baby and me. Then the mother came out. Shy but confident, friendly, accepting. I ended up with the baby in my arms. The another mother showed up with another baby and a toddler. I ended up with two babies in my arms and the toddler holding on to my pants. I remembered that up at the corner where the buses stopped was a man selling ice cream cones and treats out of a lift lid box on a bicycle. I motioned to the mothers and together we all went up. I bought ice cream cones for everyone. More kids showed up. More mothers. More babies. I bought for everyone. I helped kids and babies and mothers unwrap the cones and treats. I showed them that if you blew into the wrappers that your warm breath would pop off the wrappers. The babies couldn't blow–just spit. Then like the pied piper I lead them all back down to the snake head stall. I had a camera. I never carry a camera but on this day I had a camera. I picked up a skull and acted silly with it. The kids were kinda scared. More silliness. Then some smiles. Then I got them to hold the skulls and I took some pictures. I have a roll of film of little Thai kids holding snake skulls and ice cream cones. Smiling mothers.
The guy up at the bus stop corner was no fool so he walked his bicycle with the lift lid cooler down to the store. More kids showed up. I bought out the entire freezer. I held every child. I made eye contact with every child. I told every mother she was suay maak and I meant it. No girl I met in that town could compete with the memories of those babies and those children.
With the regularity of monkey farts at a banana convention I get emails from Manfred of Manheim and Sven from Iceland and Henri from Monaco and Paul from Belfast telling me that I am not hip and sensitive and knowledgeable about Thai culture. This tired old mantra is trotted out more often than a brothel woman with big breasts every time they read something of mine that they disagree with. I have been to more temples than most monks, seen more Thai geography than most Thais, take more of an interest in Thai history and Thai arts and crafts than most Thais, have been involved with Thailand for a huge chunk of my adult life, am involved with on site Thai issues or research or reading or writing Thai activities every week, have Thai friends here and in Thailand, and have for years have been an interested participating foster father to two different children in two different villages. But apparently, I don't know anything. OK, I guess there isn't anything there to talk about. The report is in. I'm insensitive and ignorant about Thais and Thai culture.
So now let's talk about you. Let me ask you a question. How many things have you done with children under the age of six in Thailand? Have you helped them launch their kites at a kite festival? Have you helped them and their friends catch little fish in a bucket? Have you helped carry their fishing rods to the fishing hole? Have you bought them ice cream treats and sat in the shade with them and talked as if you had known each other for 20 years? Have you helped a little girl take a picture of her mother in the park? Do you ever pay attention to the children's sections in the newspaper? Do you know about children's events and festivals and amusement and theme parks? Are you aware of the Thai and foreign and religious organizations that do things for children in Thailand? Have you ever asked to see a picture of your girlfriend's child and meant it when you said it? Did you know that the 2nd day of January is Children's Day in Thailand and that some of the activities might make great dates? There is often something fun held in the park next to the Chatuchak Weekend market. Did you know that? Really? No? Well, last time I looked it up in the big book of life children count too. You don't read much about this in the guidebooks and you don't read much about this on the Thai themed farang focused internet sites but the children of Thailand are also part of the tapestry of Thai culture. In fact, in my opinion, Thai children under the age of six are an excellent example of the ‘real' Thailand. Innocent, full of life and hope, unpolluted by prejudice, open to a stranger's smile, willing to give the round eye the benefit of the doubt, judging you by your performance, easy to tickle, and quick to laugh. When people pick up the ‘sensitivity' stick and start beating me with it I often wonder how much time they have spent with the children of Thailand–the real Thailand–the future of Thailand. When you are looking at the postcard rack for something to send back home (look at me–I'm a badass–I'm in Thailand) do you always send a picture of a temple or an elephant? Next time Mr. Sensitive to Thai Culture why don't you mail a postcard of a Thai child. That's right. Show what a real man you are. Pay attention to someone who is helpless and looking for love and attention. Have you ever considered getting involved in a foster program with a Thai child? No? Well I have and it has been wonderful. Some of the Thai downtrodden have treated me better than my farang brethren. Do you breeze right on by the pests selling flowers and the children that are begging for their parents because you know it is bad to support begging? Really? Is that what you really think and feel? Or are you just taking the easy way out with some idea of someone else's that you read on the internet? I give to all the children and I buy from lots of the pests and I make eye contact and try to get a smile in every case. They are children. Your lame philosophy doesn't matter. They are children. I try to make eye contact and smile and get a return wave from every child I meet on the street. I have met many wonderful mothers and fathers. This is the real Thailand you bonehead. And it is being ignored. Think I am exaggerating? Of course you do. That's your defence against feeling a little guilty because all you do is think of yourself and then tell big stories at home about how "you've been there–and you know. . ." Bullshit. Go into any bookstore in Thailand or in your own country and go to the travel section and pull down all the travel books about Thailand. Now open them up one by one and look in the back in the Index. Now go to the C section and see if you can even find the word Children. Usually the word doesn't even appear. Everyone one of these authors without exception would posture that he is more tuned into the country than me but none of them talk about Thai children. Except for the obligatory photo and caption of the smiling naked child by the side of a klong there is usually nothing. And the author isn't alone to take the blame. Apparently none of the editors or proof readers or literary agents or sales reps or book buyers thought children were a part of the Thai experience either. None of these super hip, super sensitive ex-backpackers even thought of the kids.
How many of the popular contemporary Thai novels reviewed as "Thai sensitive" and "Thai knowledgeable" ever have children as characters? Every one of these ‘published authors' is full of themselves. Success does that. So where are the kids? You know the novels I am talking about. The books with the back cover blurbs that read like the Second Coming. The only trouble is that reading these books is like eating Thai food. Tasty but an hour later you can't remember what you did. I'd like to be a fly on the wall of the bamboo house when one of these authors tells a Thai family that their children are not as interesting and do not have as much to offer as the standard tired stable of ‘colorful' characters that populate these books. Hey, I've got an idea Mr. Fluent in Thai Published Author–why don't you make the main character of your next airport gift shop blockbuster a five year old Thai child. It wouldn't sell? Nah, you're just not writer enough.
All you can think of is bad boys and bad girls doing bad things in a cesspit of crime and mental instability. You call it ‘writing what you know' when you are trying to pick up Miss Fluent in English Chula University. Well, I've got news for you. It's already been done. Stressful social situations and colourful characters and internal struggles has already been done. He was a Russian author. His name was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Maybe you've heard of him. Doing the same thing and then throwing a pot of yum woon sen at it does not make it exotic Thai literature. So why not give the children of Thailand a shot? When is the last time you held a child's hand in yours? When is the last time you wondered what a little girl was thinking? When is the last time you got down on the ground and talked to one of these little Thais face to face? When is the last time you had a plot device or a story or an outline where the kids got to win, instead of feeling confused and scared and uncertain and lonely and unloved so much of the time? Can't do it? Not interested? OK, fine. But maybe now the line in the sand has been drawn. You know your limits. So the next time someone starts to flatter you about how you are so Thai sensitive and so Thai knowledgeable and about how you are such a great writer; you'll just be quiet.
Now I know what you are saying. You are saying, "Ah come on Dana, I didn't save my money all year and fly a long ways to untangle some snot nosed kid's kite string!" I agree. And no one endorses personal choice more than me. If you want to spend your time in the Kingdom hanging out in bars arguing about sausages, and meeting pretty girls, and scuba diving; I'm with you. Good luck and I really mean it. It's called a vacation. Just don't bleat on and on about how you are sensitive and knowledgeable about Thailand. You are no different than anyone else. You are a foreign face from a faraway place involved with a culture you barely understand. And the next time you are about to email some person you have never met and don't know about how he is the ignorant one and you are the culturally sensitive one–ask yourself this question–"How much time have I spent in Thailand with the kids?" If the answer is "None!"–maybe you should just shut up.
Oh, by the way: remember I mentioned that I had been a foster parent to Thai children? When I wrote about it–do you know how many interested emails I got? One!
Thoughts to follow.