Village Voice

Amy Salmon's E-Mail from Thailand (Part 6)

We had an exciting week in Chiang Mai because Jenn had her baby, 10 days late, on June 20.  It was quite a stressful ten days leading up to the birth, because she didn't know whether to induce labor or wait, and was in general hot, uncomfortable, and extremely cranky.  Not an easy week to be a friend, but I agreed with everything she said, even when she was wrong, and it all worked out.  We think that they originally got the due date wrong, because she wasn't sure when she had conceived, and all along the baby had seemed a little underweight for where he was supposed to be.  She was in labor for 12 hours -- I was there when it was first beginning -- at her house for one of our frequent evenings of dinner and The West Wing, which she's completely hooked on and which sometimes inspires spirited discussions about issues raised on the show -- but she didn't want to worry me so downplayed it a little.  I left around 11 pm and told her I'd call her around 2 the next day to see if she'd had the baby and if not, whether she wanted me to come over again.  I called at 2:30 and he'd been born -- at 2:13 pm.  It was really fun.  I went to see him the next day in the hospital and have been over a few times since they've been home.  He was around 7.5 lbs. when he was born and is in perfect health, so it seems like he just needed the extra ten days.  His name is Aidan Welsh Pouteela, and he's a doll.  And he's going to spend a good part of his infancy with The West Wing in the background, from all early indications.  Maybe he'll move to the States and run for Congress.

Turns out I seem to have missed the hoopla around the King's accession celebrations that took place here in Chiang Mai --- Jenn was in town that day and said there was a big parade and such at Thapae Gate.  That was the day I was in Myanmar for my visa run.  I would have sworn I'd read in the Bangkok Post (Thailand's English-language newspaper) that there was a thing on Monday 12th, but maybe that was only in Bangkok.  Oh, well.  I'm sorry I missed it, but what are you going to do.  I had to get the visa done that day regardless, so I didn't have a choice. 

Now it looks like we'll be lucky if there's not major political upheaval surrounding the "Caretaker" Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawat, who in theory stepped down in April but in practice is still running the country and is much disliked in Bangkok and in the southern provinces.  He's very popular here because he's from Chiang Mai, and he's also very popular among the rural portions of Thailand because he buys off farmers, so northeast Thailand, the part that borders Vietnam and Laos, is very much behind him.  There's a lot of unrest in the south of Thailand, due mainly to racial/religious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.  Here in Chiang Mai all is quiet, so I tend to not pay a lot of attention to it, but the reports coming out of the areas bordering Malaysia (which is a predominately Muslim country) are pretty alarming.  People are getting killed on a daily basis and arrested without cause.  (Not foreigners -- it's an internal thing among the Thais themselves.)  Buddhists are supposed to be all about nirvana and peacefulness and going with the flow, but they don't behave much like that -- especially when they're driving, or around Muslims.  Kind of like Southern Baptists don't behave much like Jesus, at least when it comes to judging your fellow man! 

The Muslim population in Chiang Mai is virtually nonexistent as far as I've been able to tell, but there is a prejudice against them, and against people from southern Thailand, like Jenn's husband Reeo.  He's from Krabi and his skin is darker than that of the people from northern Thailand, and I've seen the girls at NES treat him in an openly disdainful manner that's pretty appalling.  They even refer to him as "black".

Some things are the same all over the world; it's just a matter of degrees.  Who decided that white was good and black was bad?  It's incredible how widespread that feeling is, and how deeply ingrained it is in so many people.  The Thais here in Chiang Mai aspire to be white.  There are all manner of whitening creams and powders for sale in the stores, and I've had more than one Thai tell me I was beautiful -- "Your skin is so beautiful!" -- mostly because of its color.  It's interesting, in a disquieting sort of way.

You'd think after nearly five months in southeast Asia, nothing if not hot and humid with very strong sun, I'd have something of a tan, but my face looks pretty much like it always has, as does the rest of me.  The only place I have any kind of a tan is on my feet, where you can see the lines from the flip-flops I wear pretty much every day.  It's pointless to wear anything else here, really, because you have to take your shoes off lots of places before entering, including business establishments. 

Shoes aren't worn at NES -- I teach barefoot to barefoot children.  Thai culture regards the feet as dirty; I think that's at the root of it.  Although your feet get far dirtier being barefoot all the time!  Especially now that it's starting to rain more -- the drainage systems in the street are horrendous and so are the "sidewalks" -- more often than not they're made of tile that instantly becomes like a skating rink the minute it starts to rain.  It doesn't help with the nature of tropical storms, from 0 to 60 in no time flat, so the puddles appear out of nowhere when the skies suddenly open.  In those situations barefoot is better, if you can't just avoid the rain altogether.

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