Thursday, March 24, 2011

America Not the Same As Thailand

My wife has now been in America for two months.  Although the weather and family responsibilities somewhat restrict our ability to go out, Duang is getting a fairly good representation of what life is like here in America.  She has been to the mall.  She has been involved with 911 call and Hospital Emergency Room visits.  She has witnessed Policemen and Paramedics doing their job.  She has been several times to a library.  Duang has even attended an open house for selling a home is well beyond our means.  Sadly she has also seen "Dancing with the Stars", as well as "American Idol" along with several other television programs.  To her credit, she is now a Boston Bruins hockey fan although I think she watches only for the fights.

Back in Thailand whenever I complained about people driving the wrong way on a one way road, motorbikes pulling up on your right hand side as you are stopped waiting and signaling to make a right hand turn only to then cut in front of you whiling making their LEFT turn as you start your right turn, or motorbikes passing you on the right as you turn right from the far right lane of  two lanes headed in the same direction, Duang would gently comfort me by saying "Dahling Thailand not same same America".

Now that Duang has immigrated to the USA, I now have the opportunity to say "Darling, America is not the same as Thailand"

Yes there are many differences between the two countries and culture.  It seems to be just about every day that she experiences a difference.

First of all is the weather.  It is 35 degrees today in Connecticut.  It is roughly 35 degrees also in Udonthani.  The difference is that in Thailand the temperature is measured in Celsius (centigrade) which converts to 95F here.

Last night it snowed.  Duang had first seen snow when we landed at JFK Airport on 31 January of this year but last night was the first time that she saw it falling from the sky.  I believe that Udonthani will have snow on the day before that Hell freezes over.  In four years living in Udonthani, the coldest that I can remember it getting to was 62F.

We have been getting some rain here just about every week.  Back in Udonthani it basicly does not rain from October until May.  I explained to Duang that here in Connecticut it rains every month except for when it is too cold when it is snow rather than rain.

Second of all is "time".  Recently like almost everyone else in America, we had to change all our watches and clocks - advancing them one hour ahead to account for Daylight Savings Time.  This was a shock to Duang since we maintain the same time throughout the year in Thailand.  Naturally Duang wanted to know why we changed time twice a year in America.  I wanted to give her a better answer than "It's the law".  I remembered that it was supposed to be good and help the farmers - giving them more daylight in the evening for working in the fields.  I researched it on the Internet and found just the opposite explanation for why we have Daylight Savings Time.  It was instituted during WWI first by the Germans and then by others to supposedly save fuel required for street lighting.  The belief that it saves fuel is now debatable with the benefit, if it does exist, being around 0.5% according to the USA DOE.  Having researched the reason for DST, I guess the answer, "It's the Law", is the best one after all.

A third big difference between Thailand and America is the way people look and dress.  Here many men wear beards or goatees.  The other day it was quite windy.  As we were stopped at a traffic signal here in Groton, Duang exclaimed "Look!  Look!".  I looked to the right and did not see anything but after awhile a man stepped out into sight from behind a tree.  This man was about 55 or 60 years old and to say that he was a refugee from the 1960s would aptly describe his appearance.  What had amazed and shocked Duang was his goatee.  He had a very long gray and straggly goatee.  How long was the goatee?  It was so long that the wind was blowing it up into his face and over his eyes obscuring his vision.

In Thailand, a few Thai men have mustaches but it is only a few foreigners that have beards.  Of the few beards that I have seen in Thailand none have come close to the "Zee Zee Top" styles that you can see around here.  Thai men do not have much body hair and my hairy arms are often the center of attraction or amusement in Southeast Asia.  Here in Groton, to Duang's amazement, I am one of the less hairy men around.

Yesterday, we went for a drive in the afternoon.  We drove through the old villages of Noank and Mystic - a nostalgic journey for me and opportunity for Duang to see a little bit of "old" America.  It was also a chance to explore some possible photography venues once the leaves come back on the trees.

During our drive we passed a funeral home in Mystic.  I explained to Duang what the building was and what happened inside of the building.  I might as well have been informing her that Martians had landed and lived in that building from the look on her face.  I explained that when people died here, their family called the people that worked in the building to come get the body.  The people would bring the body to the funeral home, clean the body often filling the body with chemicals, and later family as well as friends would go to the funeral home to say good bye.  The funeral home would then take care of burying the body in a cemetery.  This was completely alien to Duang. She asked me "Why?", "Why family not take care of person?"  I replied "America not like Thailand".  In America people pay strangers who are professionals to care for the dead.

In Isaan there are no funeral homes, funeral parlors, or mortuaries.  There are no undertakers.  The deceased are attended to by the family and friends.  Village Monks and neighbors provide assistance to the family.  The remains lay in state at their home for three days after which they are brought to the village Wat, Buddhist temple, to be cremated.  The cremation is a merit making ritual that involves family, friends, and neighbors.  The body is cremated in the Wat crematorium or outside in a funeral pyre.  Strangers, if they attend are welcomed and encouraged to take photographs.  The life milestone of death is treated very differently in America than in Isaan.

Two Bodies Being Cremated In Tahsang Village

I have written four blogs related to the funeral rituals of Isaan.

As we passed by many of the fine old buildings of Mystic and Noank that date back to the 1800s, Duang asked about the people that lived in them.  I explained that the houses were occupied by a husband and wife and sometimes their small children.  She had already noticed how there were so much fewer children and young people around Connecticut than back in Isaan.   To paraphrase our theory as to why - "America, too much TV, not much boom boom"  When passing through villages of Isaan that were teeming with children, Duang would always explain to me that "No TV, too much boom boom".  Duang wanted to know why grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and most importantly of all grown sons and daughters did not live in the big houses with their relatives.  In Isaan, the culture is very different.  It is also different in Brasil.  In Brasil, my adult friends were amazed when I informed them that in America the vast majority leave home by the time that they are 18 years old - either to go to college or to get apartments with friends.  In Brasil, most sons and daughters remain at home until they get married with most young men not getting married until their late twenties or even early thirties.  In Isaan the youngest daughter is responsible to care for her family.  Often when the oldest daughter gets married, she and her new husband will move into her parent's home to help care for the parents.  It is expected for children to care for their parents, grandparents, and other family members.

Many people here in the USA have remarked to my parents how fortunate they are to have a son and daughter-in-law to move in and care for them.  In Isaan not doing so is the exception and embarrassment to the family.  The stigma of shame or "losing face" is a great motivator in Isaan. Yes, America is different than Thailand.

How often do we hear or say to long lost family members "Gee the only time that we see eachother is at funerals"?  In Isaan families are large and for everyday.  In Isaan being part of a family is not a choice but an obligation.  In Isaan being part of a family has its responsibilities and rewards.  One comfort of being part of the family is knowing that you will always be taken care of by loved ones even in death.

Duang is quite perceptive and is not shy to express her observations to me.  Often I can only agree with her and add "America not same as Thailand".

It is not necessarily always better or always worse; just different.  My hope is that they will remain the way they are and never be the same.  I wish to live neither in world of uniformity or conformity.  The richness of life as well as culture is in its diversity.

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