By Jeff J. Brown
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Sixteen years on the streets, living and working with the people of China, Jeff
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My wife and I moved from China to Thailand the end of August 2019 for our retirement. She wanted a change of scenery and I couldn’t blame her. After 16 years live on the streets of China, it has been good for my Sino-journalism, with a chance to compare and contrast another Asian country.
I was planning on doing an “Impressions of life in Thailand” after a half a year, but all the coronavirus panic and hysteria have kept my keyboard, research computer screen, printer, camera and microphone very, very busy (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/2020/03/07/its-all-here-the-china-rising-radio-sinoland-covid-19-chemical-and-bioweapon-file-film-and-tape-library/). So now, seven months into Thailand, I can blend both, by describing life here with SARS-CoV-2!
We rented a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house, about 100 square meters. It has a small garden, carport for our bicycles and a big covered back terrace. It is in a sparsely populated neighborhood south and east of Chiang Mai airport, outside the city center. Luckily, we are not in the flight paths. The runway is situated so that we only occasionally get noise from planes taking off and landing.
Quite serendipitously, our house is located just a few hundred meters from a big, three-times-a-week, open air food market, a fully equipped gym and a nice swimming pool. They both cost less than US$1 per visit. Right next door, who would’ve guessed that there is a commercial Italian bakery, serving hotels and restaurants. We can order fresh bread there. Just as close, we also have one of Thailand’s amazing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink convenience stores. They are such an experience that I’ve got on my list to do a video walk-through and podcast. Verily, they are a cultural trip, to say the least. Just a five-minute bicycle ride away, we have a huge seven-days-a-week takeaway food and fresh food market, which is next to a Seven-11 and pharmacy. As well, we have many local cafés, Thai and Western food eateries nearby.
We are also a five-minute bike ride from a massive Tesco, a Big C (Carrefour), each surrounded by shopping malls, They are full of banks, restaurants, stores (Decathlon, Office Max, Bath and Beyond, Home Pro – like Home Depot, etc.), pharmacies, stands and stalls, etc. A five-minute taxi ride away, we have our post office and Central Airport Plaza, one of the biggest indoor malls in Thailand.
We are isolated yet not isolated in our neighborhood. Chiang Mai has municipal water so good that you can drink it out of the tap. However, there is no pressure, thus every house must have an on-demand water pump to get it into the house. You can hear them purring intermittently when you are outside. One of Thailand’s national dishes is spicy green papaya salad. It is peeled and grated, but then has to be hammered on a chopping block to tenderize it. We have neighbors all around us and we get the green papaya thump-thump-thump, for 5-10 minutes a few times a day.
Driving around Thailand’s suburban housing additions, it is really remarkable. There are countless thousands of mom and pop shops and stands selling every kind of product, food or service. Within 300-400 meters from us is a bicycle shop, cooking gas bottle deliverer, hair salons, seamstresses, clothes ironing service and a medical clinic. Yet, we sort of live in the sticks. One thing is for sure: Thais are industrious and entrepreneurial. They also calmly work hard. Even in our current, blistering hot weather, manual laborers still keep at it. Covered head to toe, with no skin exposed, they do bursts of hard work in the melting sunlight and take more frequent water breaks in the shade.
My only really big complaint about where we live is the dogs. Everywhere you go, there are packs of street mongrels that the people keep alive feeding them. They sleep all day, but with their wolf pack mentality, they can go feral at night. Thus, when we ride bicycles after dark, we each have to carry a thin tree branch to frighten them off from attacking us. It’s not fun and always a bit scary, but so far, they appreciate the sting of a wielded stick.
House dogs are also a major headache, as 95% of them have not gone to obedience school. Thus, when let outside, they bark uncontrollably 24/7 at the stray cats (we have zero rodents), flying, singing and grazing birds; croaking frogs (we have a canal behind our house) and small lizards (we are surrounded by bushes and trees), of which there are a lot of, thankfully.
One little dog was a fuggin’ barking machine. To be culturally correct, I asked a couple of Thais what to do. They said to go knock on their door, bow respectfully and explain the problem. I wasn’t sure which house it was, because it is on the other side of the canal behind us. So, I computer translated my story, recommending a dog muzzle, when let outside. I knocked on three doors. No one answered. So, I left my printed translation tucked in their mailboxes, with a photo of a dog muzzle and my calling card attached, so they could reply.
The next day, a close-by neighbor came and told us his dog was trained and never barked, unless someone approached their gate. He too complained about all the barking, but said the people would not change. He said the barking I was hearing from his direction was a big dog in the next housing addition. Then, a funny thing happened. I got a message via Line (it’s the Japanese Facebook/Instagram/WeChat) from a behind-the-canal house. They said they didn’t have a dog, but they took a photo of my flyer, calling card and forwarded it to their next-door neighbor, who is also behind us.
The amazing reaction: total silence for about ten days. Not a bark or howl. Not even a whimper. As time went on, that obnoxious mutt was let out for much shorter periods, or I suspect they got a muzzle for it. Even the big bowser is barking much less, and for all of them, not all night long, like before. I can only imagine that my flyer made the rounds in the area and people made and are making an effort to be good neighbors. It’s still going on, but in measurable, much more tolerable frequencies.
If you are a fan of China Rising Radio Sinoland and/or China Tech News Flash!, now you can appreciate the challenges I have doing podcasts on our back terrace, the only place big enough to do so. Between noisy reptiles, amphibians, canines, felines, talkative birds, outdoor kitchens, water pumps, washing machines, air conditioners, water draining in the canal and the occasional plane and helicopter flying overhead, you might think I’ve hired a foley artist to enliven my shows. I haven’t. I’ve just learned to reduce all the background noise as much as possible, accepting the fact I’m not in a padded sound studio.
What do I like about Thailand? They don’t call it the Land of Smiles for nothing and this has a lot to do with its spirituality. Buddhism is the alpha and omega here, the official religion of the monarchy. Huge billboards surround airports reminding visitors to not disrespect Buddha, his image or his name. Don’t ask for a Buddha tattoo. Don’t wear or use Buddha images inappropriately on clothing, or in bars and clubs. Thailand is full of churches, mosques and all religions are tolerated, but 98% of the people are still Buddhist, of one shade or another. Buddhism and the ingrained Chinese saving face cultivates serious public tolerance. I think this is why Thais are naturally friendly to outsiders, yet officially, I will explain below why that is not the case with the government.
The other aspect I love is how safe it is. We hear all kinds of stories of street crime in the rest of Southeast Asia, even burglaries and violence. That of course happens everywhere. I understand that Big Bangkok and Southern Thailand are not as safe as the North, where we are. As with all tourist hubs, drunk and stoned visitors can go back to their hotel rooms with less belonging than when they went out. Be that as it may, I would have to say that Chiang Mai is as safe as Shenzhen, which is saying something.
Many houses could be broken into with a screwdriver, including ours. We don’t even bother to lock up when we go out, unless it is for a full day or overnight. We don’t lock at night either. People leave their homes empty for weeks at a time to travel, with only a small padlock on the front door. Robbing residences here is not common. Holding people up on the street or snatching purses seems just as rare. Nobody is stealing motor scooter helmets left hanging on them in parking lots. People also leave personal belongings in scooter baskets, unattended. I left a hat at a swimming pool and it was waiting for me when I went back a week later. The only foreigners who get physically attacked are (drunk) belligerent assholes insulting and swearing at the locals, or who are tearing up property.
In short, my wife and I (plus these days, our younger daughter) feel very safe in Thailand and when we are traveling in-country.
Thailand is a well-governed and managed country, overseen by a technocratic military, akin to China with its many engineers, corporate managers, scientists and economists running the administration. Thailand still has a big rich-other gap (it seems like too many countries are controlled by 10-15 billionaire families – Eurangloland included), but the monarchy has a 1,000-year Buddhist legacy of high expectations to provide for and take care of the common people, so this weighs heavily on their policy decisions. Even in the Thai countryside, you do not see generational poverty, like in so many parts of the US, including Oklahoma, where I grew up.
Most people do not know that Thailand has the second biggest economy in Southeast Asia, behind Indonesia and ahead of Vietnam and Malaysia. It is also the only non-imperial country I know of that repulsed plundering, exploiting Western colonialists, during the 19th-20th centuries, which demonstrates very savvy leadership, indeed.
Because of the legacy of “protect the people”, Thailand has erred on the side of extreme caution against SARS-CoV-2. Currently, the government has blocked all incoming flights, thus reducing their tourism by 8.5 million visitors so far this year, out of a normal 35 million. This was a very gutsy move, since 25% of Thailand’s GDP comes from the tourist sector.
We are in a modified lockdown. There is currently a 22:00-04:00 curfew every night. The government has dangled a full-blown curfew over the people’s heads like Damocles’ sword, but seems very reluctant to go that far. I think they are hoping that shutting the borders for a few weeks will do the trick, just like China has now shut its borders. Our younger daughter, Chara has unexpectedly been with us since the first of February, as she cannot go back to university in Beijing, until further notice (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/2020/02/22/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-student-exiled-outside-china-because-of-covid-19-face-to-face-interview-with-chara-vega-langlois-brown-china-rising-radio-sinoland-200222/). She fortuitously took her Chinese New Year vacation in Malaysia and Thailand, so she has family to be with until going back to China. In the meantime, she’s finishing her Bachelor’s thesis online.
Businesses that sell food goods can remain open. Restaurants can only do takeaway. No surprise then that Grab (like China’s Meituan) motorcycle home food delivery is working on steroids. Swimming pools, sports/health clubs, massage parlors and beauty salons are closed for now. I normally either going swimming or to the neighborhood gym every day. I am now going to the pool’s closed down clubhouse. It has an exterior one-story flight of stairs, where I climb up and down 60 floors each day. A bit boring day in and day out, but my Sony Sports Walkman flooding my ears with music makes it more entertaining. It also gives me time alone to think and solve all the world’s problems! I also learned to do it early morning or late afternoon. It is topping 40 degrees Celsius or more here every day in the shade, in a bone dry, cloud-free sky, with usually less than a mouse fart’s worth of wind. I went there a couple of times with the sun in the searing sky, beating down on me. Even with a shade hat and all my skin covered in light fabric, like the laborers do here, it felt like I was climbing 600 stories, not 60. I’m smart now!
Schools are closed and teaching online. Florence and I are taking our Thai language classes online now. It looks like each neighborhood government is making sure that what needs to be bought is made available. I was driving home from a food wholesale store and saw a small office supply shop open. Homebound students and office workers need paper, pens and ink cartridges, not just full stomachs.
All of this was supposed to end on 2 April. Then it was extended to 13 April, in four days. In any event, we are now hearing the partial lockdown will go to 30 April – my birthday, yea! – so I may have two things to celebrate then.
The vast majority of Thais seem to be trying to follow government directives. Very few people go out without a mask, but unlike the police state West, no one is fining or arresting them. A few 1-to-2-table restaurants in low traffic areas (like our neighborhood) are furtively opening for a couple of hours around the three daily mealtimes, then closing back up in between. I’m sure the local authorities know, but people have to eat. This is because many working- and middle-class Thais don’t cook at home. They often don’t even have proper kitchens, since eating local food is so cost effective. They grab breakfast on the way to work, at lunch and on the way home in the evening. I can attest it is good and cheap for sure. Why do dishes?
The Thai people have very strong social and familial solidarity, thus they seem to be surviving the lockdown together. They are flexible and have a “just make it work-Plan B” logic about them, similar to the Chinese, which in times like these really helps. I think it goes back to that Asian Buddhist-Daoist-Confucian philosophy of give and take. The Big Wheel of Life keeps on turning. Let us get it done. Western Marlboro Man does not carry much truck here.
Like everyplace else, the government will probably print money to help cover the shortfall. In Thailand’s case, this would be a blessing in disguise. Its currency, the baht is overvalued right now. Last year, as a result, many thousands of foreign residents moved to other parts of Southeast Asia. Exports were gasping for air and tourist were getting a lot less for their forex. The government has really struggled to bring the baht down, so here’s their chance to kill two economic birds with one fiscal stone. My wife and I hope so, because we convert US dollars/euros into Thai baht to live on. Since January, government policy has depreciated the baht about ten percent, which is huge for us. Keep coming down Mr. Baht, come on down!
Westerners living in Thailand are often frustrated and angry at Thailand’s administrative suspicions about farang, or foreigners. The leadership has obviously not forgotten Eurangloland’s exterminating, raping, enslaving, occupying, thieving colonial-global capitalist imperialism, going back to the 1400s, continuing across the planet as I write. Farang say the Thai government is racist and/or paranoid. I’d say the leadership knows what today’s headlines really mean, suggesting they are still very savvy, indeed.
Since moving here, I really miss China and the Chinese people. In any case, living in Thailand is giving me a different perspective, which has in fact helped me write about Sinoland in a fresh way. I will continue to visit China often, like I did in December. My wife and I look forward to finally start getting our Social Security retirement money in October, so I can quit teaching so much to put food on the table and borrowing money to pay the rent. It was supposed to start now – in April – when I turn 66, but when we started the process in January, we didn’t know overseas applications have a six-month backlog. Such is life. Thereafter, we will finally get to explore Thailand, meet people and learn more about this beautiful, history-filled country. I will also have the time I need for China Rising Radio Sinoland and China Tech News Flash! Finally…
Sino-best from the Land of Smiles, Jeff
Why and How China works: With a Mirror to Our Own History
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