Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oh Give Me a Home

Last night, out for dinner and a few beers with Amanda, Heater, Rita, Sarah, and Zach, after a few spirited games of foosball on an ancient, dusty table we found in the back, which we illuminated with an old broken Chivas Regal lamp, we discussed our roles as teachers here in Isan, something we often do, trying to grasp the value and meaning of what we are doing in Thailand. A tricky and complicated business. Earlier we had been with Leo, a young man from South Africa who works in Tat Phanom in a large public high school in their private, within the school, English Program. Leo found his job through an agency in Bangkok and he is paid about 35,000 bht per month ( as compared to our 5,000). Students tuition into programs such as the one Leo works for, and they tend to be both more sophisticated and less respectful. Leo explained to us that the conditions improve as far as salary and worsen as far as teaching conditions and the attitude of students the closer one gets to Bangkok. It reminds me of when I moved to New York City in the summer of 1980, where what impressed this young man from the relative cow town Denver was the tightly woven juxtaposition of ancient physical, local trades such as cobbler and fishermen, and intellectual, global ones such as merger and acquisition specialists and bond traders, and the concomitant extremes poverty and wealth. Here in Isan we do not see, of course, wealth on the magnitude of a major city, but we are on the front lines of the transition between the agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial worlds. Idealistically, we are here helping give the poor farming children a shot at competing with those Bangkok kids. Little Ning, if she has the motivation and ability, can become a judge, or a pharmacist, or a company director someday and exercise her scientific or creative or leadership talents. About that, we feel all warm and wonderful. Economically it is a muddier river. We are small cogs in the great machine of progress aiding Isan move from a place of subsistence farmers and small villages, towards a place of industrial farms, Tesco Lotus stores, and KFC fast food outlets. For those of us who left the US to escape the deadening aspects of a highly productive, post-industrial capitalist society, who love the simplicity and clarity of knowing one's neighbors, living near one's immediate and extended family, growing the food one eats, living more in a physical than digital reality, it is hard to ignore our role in the crime. We might not be holding the guns used in the armed robbery, but at the very least we're the driver's ed instructor, teaching the getaway driver how to use the clutch and the rules of the road. To put it another way, we are like the elephants, working for our masters in the name of progress but to the detriment of our habitat. As Amanda astutely pointed out, first world countries of course depend on the existence of overcrowded and aspiring second and third world nations, where lax environmental and worker safety laws are the norm. We can be "post-industrial" and operate in a "creative economy" as long as we can buy our goods cheaply from places where people work for pennies a day and we can forcibly extract more food with chemicals and genetic engineering. And that brings up the second enormous challenge to continuing on our present path of world development, which is simply the environmental consequences of all this increase in consumption. The old adage A rising tide lifts all boats may have a very different and literal meaning with the melting ice caps. My brother-in-law an engineer and staunch capitalist, would sound the hopeful clarion of human ingenuity coupled with technology as the magic carpet ride out of our troubles, and part of me wants to believe it.  Still I tend to side with those old hippies and greenies who believe that even if we could all live the Jetson life, something important, something beautiful, will be lost. Coincidentally, I opened up the Bangkok Post page today to find this article on the disappearing water buffalo in Thailand:


  1. A rising tide is all well and good, provided you have a boat. For those who are boatless, the experience is less thrilling.

  2. Sad, but I find this your best post yet.