Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Moving Out

To the supporters of Wastivory,

I'm pleased to announce the creation of a new blog: Thirty Below, which can be found on WordPress:

Thirty Below deals exclusively in marine and aquatic life. It chronicles cool organisms, marine biology and ecology, and ocean conservation.

Unfortunately, Thirty Below's creation also signals (at least for now) the end of the Wastivore. It's been a good run - there's a lot of writing on this site that makes me proud. I encourage you to go through the archives and check it out. I've had a blast.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hell on Wheels

Hanoi, VN (day 8) -

A word problem: If Nguyen rides his motorbike down Lan Ong Street at 75 km/h and Trin rides his motorbike down Bat Su Street at 60 km and the two streets intersect at right angles in the seating area of a bustling noodle shop, which seating area has spilled off the sidewalk and into the middle of the road; and there's an elderly woman with a giant wooden pole balanced across her shoulder - each end of the pole laden with bushels of bananas that must weigh more than the woman, who tips the scales at 40 kg, *maybe*, does herself - crossing the street, blithe as can be; and to top it all off Nguyen has his six-month-old baby perched on the handlebars of his cycle like ET... what will the body count be when the motorbikes collide?


Our guesthouse is located in the heart of the Old Quarter, the intricate circulatory system of alleys-masquerading-as-streets that comprises Hanoi's northeast corner. The Old Quarter is claustrophobic, tangled, and clandestine. Opposing stuccoed building fronts lean together conspiratorially and crop out the sky. Men, cigarettes hanging from their lower lips, wield screaming circular saws and blowtorches against sheets of aluminum siding inside workshops. Walnut-faced old women suspiciously guard sheaves of knock-off soccer jerseys hanging in dimly-lit store interiors. Gaggles of twenty-somethings squat at low plastic tables outside cafes and bicker and laugh over steaming bowls of Pho Ga and glasses of mysterious amber liquid, a congregation on every corner, thousands of lives unfurling in the falling dark like plants waiting for moths.

The streets of the Old Quarter aren't as congested as Bangkok's, but they're scarier. Bangkok has at least a facsimile of the familiar traffic-regulating infrastructure, but Hanoi is utter chaos: no stoplights, no stop signs, and consequently no stopping. Motorbikes reign supreme: their agility and slightness makes them perfect for narrow twisting streets. Bikes come from every direction; avoiding them is like trying to dodge hail. They burst out of alleys, roar down boulevards, peel along sidewalks with total impunity. Intersections are nightmarish games of Tetris - baroque patterns of motorbikes hurtling toward one another at speeds that should be impossible to attain on slim city streets - nobody should go this fast on a road that doesn't have the letter I at the start of its name - vrooming toward inevitable collision like charging armies.

You cover your eyes, wait for the explosion, and there's an unbelievable cacophony of horns (all drivers here have their horns permanently set to BLARE to announce their presence, as if we couldn't hear their engines from like twenty blocks out), but, weirdly, no shriek of twisted metal. You peep out from the slits between your fingers and, huh, where's the wreck? There is none. Somehow four surging bodies of motorbikes have passed through one another like braided rivers, sliding around and squeezing through, and all involved parties are shooting down the block toward the next near-fatality.

Okay, now you want to cross the street. But how? You can no more wait for a break in the flow of motorbikes than you can for a break in the waters of the Mekong River. Watch the woman with the bananas. What's her technique? Well, but that's crazy: she just plunges, no look before she leaps, simply plows across the street without a glance up, down, or sideways. She has, you guess, a blind faith in the skill of the riders, and/or supreme confidence in her own invincibility.

Or, no: the possibility of being struck never occurs to her, just as the possibility of getting T-boned never occurs to the American driver who motors through a green light at a four-way stop. Hanoi has its own method of controlling traffic, in lieu of lights or signs: that motorbikes will envelop but not touch streetcrossers, as though each pedestrian lived in the eye of her own personal hurricane, is indubitably codified, not written down but as rigid as Western rules of the road. The sanctity of the hurricane's eye is inviolable.

To enter a country is to abide by its laws. Step into traffic.


More from Hanoi to come. I think my camera was pick-pocketed (or, y'know, I might've just lost it), so no pictures, alas. I've been here eight days now; two to go before moving on to... Saigon? Laos? Time may or may not tell.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guest Post: The Haikustivore

Elise rewrites my blog. Concisely.

The Online Sports Journal

Jake Tuber owns me

“The Hyperbolic Chamber”

Sports, sports, sports, sports, sports

DSIL’s Meditation Retreat: Or, How I Learned to Quit Thinking and Accept the Pain

I can’t meditate

Because I am too gangly

Then, tapioca.

A Layman’s Explanation of Thailand’s Political Situation

Red and Yellow Shirts

Taksin skypes Reds from Dubai


The Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning


Economic History

But, I’m from Amherst!

Supposedly Delicious Things I’ll Never Eat Again

I like to eat stuff

except not chicken foot stew

wah wah lueh wah

A First Update; or, Thai Toilet Protocol: An Episstemology Gap (w/ endnotes!)

Forest Gump haircut

Avatar analogy

squat toilet endnotes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Online Sports Journal


I recently signed on to write fortnightly posts for Jake Tuber's online sports journal under the pen name Cerrano Want to Bat. If you haven't been getting your fill of insightful, lapidary writing on Wastivore, check out my first piece for The Hyperbolic Chamber, about my emotional connection to pitcher Barry Zito.

The site is going to be chock-full of great sports writing, so please check in occasionally.


Monday, May 24, 2010

DSIL's Meditation Retreat: Or, How I Learned to Quit Thinking and Accept the Pain

One thing I decidedly am not is: flexible.

My body is stiffer than a two-by-four in a blizzard. Despite a brief dalliance with yoga, I have hips as creaky as the rusted hinges of a neglected gate, ankles that pop when I flex them, and a thrice-operated-upon knee that’s about as stable as a house of cards hastily erected in the drafty attic of a dilapidated San Francisco guesthouse perched precisely on the San Andreas Fault. Like Dennis Kucinich’s stature or Sarah Palin’s command of the English language, the rigidity of my lower body is a glaring, crippling liability.

And no position (outside the baroque postures of Rodney Yee’s Advanced Yoga instructional video series) poses my balky legs more problems than sitting cross-legged. Good ol’ Indian Style, preferred position of kindergarten story-times and campfire sing-alongs the world over. Second nature for most sitters, and a torturous contortion for Yours Truly.

Scrunching my legs beneath me is like trying to refold a gigantic AAA roadmap: the kind where, baffled, you spread it across the steering wheel and scrutinize the recondite chessboard of creases until the air conditioner blows the thing up into your face and you flap it around your head like a fucking accordion and you’re traveling 97 mph on the wrong side of the highway while being assaulted by a paper pterodactyl, and finally you just wad the map into a ball and shove it in the glove compartment and fishtail back onto your side of the road seconds before you would’ve been pancaked by an 18-wheeler. That’s what trying to sit cross-legged is like for me.

So, one thing I’m decidedly not cut out for is: meditation.

I could’ve predicted this, but confirmation came courtesy of a recent DSIL staff meditation retreat, a three-day process involving lectures from a monk, numerous breaches of Thai etiquette, and so much sitting cross-legged that I feared that my coworkers would have to bear me back to Bangkok on a divan, my legs frozen in permanent pretzel.


Most people pursue meditation to heighten spirituality, achieve mental clarity, or score hippie chicks; but the fruit that the Darunsikkhalai School of Innovative Learning apparently expected the retreat to bear were more pragmatic. Our school, you see, is run by ex-businessmen with little background in education. Therefore, when the school’s owner announced the retreat, he did so through a plenitude of charts and graphs dubiously demonstrating that companies used regular meditation to increase worker productivity – and profits. Far from pursuing nirvana, we would be meditating to boost revenue! (Or the educational equivalent: improved standardized test scores, I guess.)

This, to me, seemed somehow inimical to the spirit of meditation… but who was I, an unenlightened Westerner who can’t even sit on the floor for five minutes without setting off fireworks in his patellar meniscus, to pass judgment on what was or was not in keeping with said spirit? So I went.


The retreat took place at a hotel. The hotel, inexplicably, was situated at the heart of a gigantic tapioca plantation.

I didn’t know much about tapioca before the retreat (besides that it was the key and titular ingredient in a barely-palatable pudding), and I still don’t. At least I realize now that it comes from umbrella-shaped plants with shiny, yellow-splotched leaves – I’d always imagined tapioca pudding sludge being siphoned out of, like, a peat bog or a tar pit or something.

Who knew?

The plantation was stark: endless rows of churned clay either bristled with scraggly tapioca plants or stood barren, raw and red like the earth’s exposed flesh. Stagnant, murky puddles that you could just tell served as mosquito larvae nurseries dotted the tilled land. The farm was immense, miles in diameter. I abandoned the secret aspirations of escape that I’d been harboring. I had a hard time imagining who the hotel’s clientele was: maybe it typically served as a conference center for meetings of the agrarian minds. The complex itself was nice enough, but if you’ve seen a gated Floridian golf course community, you can imagine: palm trees, spiky grass crawling with red ants, a cloudy little water hazard, cottages with red sloping roofs. The biggest novelty was that the cottages were dubbed “Tapiocasas.”

Forty-two teachers showed up to the first meditation class wearing white shirts and dark slacks, customary meditation attire.* (The white represents purity and cleanliness; needless to say, I spent three days splashing luminous curry broths on myself.) We filed into a frigidly air-conditioned conference room and sat down on blue velvety cushions – forty-one of us immediately and effortlessly assuming proper cross-legged positions, and one lonely dissenter with legs stretched and crossed before him in heedless defiance.

*Besides reasons of symbolism, you also wear white to avoid distracting your fellow meditators. This precept seems reasonable, but uniform whiteness isn’t always a guarantor of non-distraction: one of the instructors, a woman named Ploy, wore a sparkling white shirt with the word Freak printed in huge green letters. This shirt proved an immense diversion, as my flighty mind wasted untold minutes pondering what the illegible fine print below Freak could possibly read. I’m guessing …in the bed. (Incidentally, Ploy’s shirt was the latest example of my favorite phenomenon in this country: Thai people wearing shirts that bear bizarre, perverted, or nonsensical English slogans. I can only wonder if they know what the slogans mean; I usually suspect not. I once traveled with a tour guide whose t-shirt declared, “I’d rather be smorting cocaine off a hooker’s ass.” Yep, smorting. With an M.


The monk who led the retreat turned out to be quite the character. Far from the taciturn figures of stolid piety I’d encountered in the past, this man was animated, wise-cracking, and, thanks to years of education in Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, surprisingly Western in speech and attitude. He spoke excellent English, and he delighted in telling stories about his secular past – about his years as a university student hell-bent on pleasing his father, about his time as an economist and banker, and, with the most relish, about some “nighttime outings” that sounded distinctly unmonastic in nature.

But although learning of the monk’s tribulations provided some human-interest value, I was expecting him to deliver the philosophical and spiritual goods. In that regard, I was disappointed. His monologues were familiar and blandly aphoristic: topics included disavowing materialism, self-identification and labeling, and self-acceptance. As Elise cynically but succinctly put it, “If he’d been wearing a suit instead of orange robes, we could’ve been at a self-help seminar.” (Cinematic analogs include Obi Wan-Kenobi and Greg Kinnear's character in Little Miss Sunshine.)

A heretical comparison? Maybe not. (Also, this is actually not the monk who led the retreat... but, you know, all those guys in orange robes...)

Although he framed his talks as ‘inquiries,’ they were almost totally one-sided; instead of sparking dialogue, his questions were leading and mostly rhetorical. (“Should you identify with your Mercedes Benz and your Rolex or with the person inside?”) He had a rubbery, emotive face, and every time he posed a Life Coach-ish query or recited a maxim, his mug stretched into this pop-eyed expression of joyous disbelief, as though he’d inadvertently stumbled upon the secret to lasting happiness and wanted to be sure that we were sharing the revelation. He was congenial enough, and I liked him, but nothing he said came close to rocking my mental boat.

When we weren’t absorbing treacly wisdom, we were meditating. Sitting cross-legged proved as untenable as I expected. Thanks to my intractable hips, I couldn’t sit in true knee-touching-the-floor butterfly posture; my legs kept popping back up like squeezed-and-released bedsprings. And thanks to my balky knees, I couldn’t even maintain that half-assed facsimile of Indian style for more than a few minutes before my tendons began to twang like plucked banjo strings. I was constantly fidgeting, readjusting, complaining. The first time we attempted meditation, I almost instantly attracted a small crowd of instructors and well-wishers offering me advice* about how to sustain a proper meditative posture, their frustration deepening as I failed to heed their suggestions: “Relax your hips… Breathe deeply…. Not that deeply… Okay, now a little more deeply… Straighten your back… Don’t be rigid… Why don’t you just breathe normally?” Through it all, I was in orthopedic agony, pain that proved incompatible with maintaining proper breathing rates.

*I knew I could count on the monk for a meaningless shibboleth or two, and he didn’t disappoint. His words of wisdom: “Instead of thinking about what the pain should be, or what you want the pain to be, or what you hope the pain to be, accept the pain for what it is.” Cue eyes widening, brows rising, toothy grin broadening as though he’d just given me the formula for turning lima beans into M&Ms.

Now, among the first culture mores you learn upon arriving in Thailand is that one should never, ever, under any circumstances, point one’s foot at another human being. I don’t know why, exactly, but doing so is gravely disrespectful, an act of appalling insolence and insult that only a truly uncouth, ill-mannered lout would ever be thoughtless and/or malicious enough to perpetrate.

Of course, every time I crossed and uncrossed and recrossed my legs in desperate search of a comfortable position, I was inadvertently pointing my bare, calloused, broken-toenailed, size-15 dogs directly at the monk.

This faux pas was brought to my attention by the audible gasp that escaped from my Thai co-teachers whenever I twitched, the kind of not-quite-stifled exhalation of shocked embarrassment that was probably breathed by millions of puritans during Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I was, it seemed, bringing deep dishonor to DSIL whenever I moved a muscle. Eventually I was pointedly asked to sit elsewhere, so that my enormous feet would direct their toxic insults away from the holy guy.* The ignominy!

*While the Thai teachers were stunned, appalled, etc., I’d like to point out that the monk didn’t seem to notice that I was dissing him; or if he noticed, didn’t give a shit. Or at least his saccharine patter wasn’t affected. Which, I mean, good for him.


Even in the best of times, I might not have been able to sustain three days of meditation. But Bangkok, as any person who’s lately picked up a newspaper knows, is not enduring the best of times.

Wednesday, May 19 was the first day of the meditation retreat, and the climactic day of Thailand’s ongoing political conflict. The Thai military finally followed through on its threats of a crackdown, invading Ratchaprasong Square, where the Red Shirt protestors had amassed. Although the Red leaders surrendered, the radical Red fringe went nuts, burning thirty-six buildings in downtown Bangkok, including the nation’s largest shopping mall, before finally being quelled. (Weirdly, a lot of the most violent rebels weren’t Red Shirts at all, but Black Shirts – the term for politically unaffiliated rabble-rousers who seemed to exploit the breakdown of law in Bangkok as an opportunity to act out anarchical fantasies.)

A Thai soldier subdues a Red Shirt.

Although the government suppressed the protesters within 24 hours, we had little way of knowing what was happening in Bangkok during the isolation of the retreat. We clustered around the TVs in our hotel rooms, trying to parse scraps of news from the disquieting cycle of images, most of them involving some edifice being swallowed by flames – or if not that, then Red Shirts operating grenade launchers; or casualties, perhaps corpses, being toted away on stretchers; etc…

Then, sometime Wednesday afternoon, most of the TV stations mysteriously malfunctioned: live feeds were replaced by test patterns and the national anthem on repeat. Classic disaster movie cliché. We imagined the worst: Bangkok razed, thousands dead, enraged and machine-gun-toting rebels tearing through the streets. Many of my co-teachers were unable to contact their friends and family. I began to plot my escape from Thailand. Only later did we learn that, though the TV stations’ power sources had been destroyed, most of Bangkok was still intact, and that the uprising had effectively been put down – for now, at least*.

*I’m still trying to decide how to feel about the Red Shirts being so thoroughly vanquished. Their cause isn’t unjust, and the government committed some real atrocities during the standoff, often using excessive force. But the Red Shirts’ methods were equally barbaric, if not more so, and I never quite cottoned to rooting for terrorists. And then there’s the fact that the end of the protests means a dramatically increased quality of life for moi, in that I can now go almost fearlessly into downtown Bangkok again. I’m glad, selfishly, to see it end, but I also hope that the Reds someday accomplish their aims – next time, non-violently.

Anyway, in the middle of this chaos and uncertainty, we were whisked away from our TVs by the unyielding demands of the retreat’s schedule. If you can clear your mind when your own city is in flames, you’re made of sterner mental mettle than I am. I struggled to forget the conflict raging just a few hours from our bucolic tapioca paradise, and just a few miles from my apartment. Focusing on the synchronized movements of my breath and navel proved beyond the powers of my distractible mind. To my surprise, though, most of my Thai co-teachers seemed remarkably sanguine (at least compared to us distressed English teachers). Either they knew something we didn’t, or they felt the numb faith in Bangkok’s ultimate invincibility that comes with having lived safely in a place for a long time. (Think: the people who stayed in their homes on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens.)

Regardless, the next couple of days vindicated the Thai teachers’ nonchalance, as the fighting died down and the TV networks were resuscitated. Even so, my concentration never recovered.


What with the formulaic talks and the pain of meditation, I don’t think I got a whole lot out of the retreat (aside, that is, from a renewed appreciation for tapioca). There were times when I thought I was maybe on the verge of a breakthrough, when I nearly managed to tune out all external stimuli and extraneous thoughts, when I was conscious of the pain in my legs without allowing my mind to be its captive. I think I came to understand why meditation is valuable for other people*.

*I suspect that sitting meditation may never be for me, but I also maintain that physical activities can be equally meditative: I’ve always found that a special focus comes over me while running or biking; I grow attentive to the movements of my body to the exclusion of all other thoughts, and often – especially while biking – find myself miles from my place of origin without realizing that any time had elapsed. That, to me, seems like the kind of utter mindfulness (manifesting itself as absent-mindedness) that seated meditation is aiming for.

I probably 'meditated' more successfully in Glacier National Park last summer than I did at any point during the retreat.

Mostly, though, I felt restless, and my leg muscles tighter than tennis racquet catgut, and by the third day the weather was too nice and my mind too errant to stay seated in a small, crowded, air-conditioned room, and Elise and I wound up wandering the grounds amongst the Tapiocasas. And that, I think the monk would’ve said (if he hadn’t been sleeping serenely in his armchair), was okay too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Layman's Explanation of Thailand's Political Situation

Bangkok, of late, has been jarred by political turmoil, and I’ve received a handful of emails inquiring after my safety. In response to these missives, I’m dusting off the keyboard to offer an appraisal of the situation. (Since conditions here are evolving rapidly, this post may well be obsolete by the time you read it; I've already had to revise it extensively in response to sudden developments.) Hopefully those friends worried about my well-being will be mollified, those who’ve been incommunicado will remain silently sanguine, and both groups will have a better idea of what's happening in my adoptive nation.


Thailand is dominated by two political parties: the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts. The Reds are, almost universally, poor, rural, agrarian – a sort of pastoral proletariat. The Yellows are urban (read: Bangkokian) and wealthy and white-collar*. The conflict, then, isn’t just Red v. Yellow, but Rich v. Poor, and Bangkok v. The Rest of Thailand.

* Thai political parties’ compositions seem to me much less diverse than American parties’. Within America’s Democratic Party, for example, limousine liberals from New England rub ideological elbows with poor blacks in Oakland; the Republican Party unites even stranger bedfellows (which births logical fallacies like uninsured Texans universally despising health care reform). Thailand’s parties, perhaps due to the country’s comparative ethnic homogeneity, aren’t nearly so jumbled in constitution; so, while the above descriptions might be overly simplified, I think they’re apt enough.

Until recently, Thailand’s Prime Minister was a man named Taksin (like Cher, he needs no second name), a businessman and politician as Red as they come. During his stint in office, Taksin passed a litany of policies that benefitted his poor, rural constituency: for example, he dramatically improved access to affordable health care (the baseline cost for a visit to a Thai hospital is something like $1.50), and granted farmers generous subsidies. As PM he was, by all accounts, a champion of the lower classes.

But the primary beneficiary of Taksin’s term was – surprise, surprise – Taksin. Prior to becoming PM he owned Shin Satellite Corporation, a company that builds (you were expecting?) satellites. Instead of dropping this conflict-of-interest business holding upon taking office, Taksin (perhaps taking his cue from Dick Cheney) remained head of Shin, and proceeded to shamelessly line his own pockets. To name one infraction among many, he granted a sizable loan to Myanmar on Thailand’s behalf, expressly so that Myanmar could purchase goods from Shin. The upshot was that Taksin, who’d entered office a billionaire, was soon able to stick the prefix multi- at the front of that sobriquet*.

*One of the stranger things about the Color War for me personally is that it’s very hard to know whom to support – a weird feeling, after years of loathing an irrefutably despicable Republican nemesis. My instinct is to side with the poor farmers and cheap health insurance, and thus the Red Shirts; but my other equally reflexive instinct is to side against corrupt politicians, and thus against Taksin, whom I find slimy and exploitative. This fight isn’t being waged under familiar terms, and so I’ve stayed more or less unaffiliated, in the vain hope that one party or another will seize the moral high ground. At first it was thrilling, being here during an epoch of percolating political change, and I was pulling hard for the Reds; but since those heady early days my esteem for them has dissipated, and as the death toll has mounted I just find myself wishing that the struggle would end. I’m basically a glorified tourist here anyway, and my interest in Thai politics is dilettantish, and to choose and staunchly support a side when I’m so poorly informed and have so little at stake feels frivolous.

Taksin, looking as ruthlessly savvy and politically calculating as ever.

Taksin didn’t see his term through, however, because, like many a corrupt and autocratic ruler before him, he was victimized by a coup. I’m a little hazy on the details of how/why this happened, but basically the Thai army swept in and bloodlessly removed Taksin from power*, installing as PM the mellifluously named Abhisit Vejjajiva, who continues to rule, albeit shakily, to this day.

*The deposed Taksin escaped Thailand, and, after an ill-fated stop in Cambodia, is floating around in exile. I’m not too certain of where he’s squirreled away – Dubai, I think.

But though Taksin is out of sight, he is by no means out of mind. Far from it: the Yellow Shirt govt has prosecuted the banished ex-PM vigorously, first indicting him on charges of corruption and then, in mid-March, confiscating his ill-gotten gains. Forty-six billion Bath (Thai currency unit) worth of gains, to be precise, or $1.5 billion. Before you bend bow across a tiny violin in lamentation of Taksin’s loss, bear in mind that he still has over a billion dollars in the bank, and is probably sunning himself on a palm tree-shaped island or coasting down an indoor ski hill or freebasing caviar or whatever extravagant things people do with themselves in Dubai.

And this is why Taksin gives me the creeps: while he’s enjoying steaks and blowjobs paid for by his Saudi sheikh friends, his constituents, the people whom he’s riled up and summoned from Chiang-Mai to wage his battle, are camped out on the streets and fighting and dying on his behalf. Because for some reason, the Red Shirts – many of whom can’t rub two nickels together – took the seizure of Taksin’s assets as like a huge personal affront. Shortly after the government announced the ruling, now over two months ago, Red Shirts began pouring en masse into the city, preparing to wreak havoc. But why should the Taksin ruling incense the Reds so badly? Why do these impoverished farmers give a shit about whether a billionaire loses an extra billion? Truthfully, I don’t know. To me, though, it smacks of rhetoric and manipulation and obfuscation: Taksin has so inflated his own legend as Champion of the People and Defender of the Little Guy that his backers are willing to die for him, even though he’s (pretty transparently) interested only in himself*.

*When pressed, the Red Shirt attitude about their hero’s malfeasances is, Yeah, he’s corrupt, but so is every other politician in this country, and if we made a big deal about this kind of thing we’d never have anybody in office.

Of course, the Reds aren’t up in arms solely over Taksin’s financial loss; the confiscation of assets was merely the proverbial camel-straw. Their real objective is to get Taksin back in office. The Red Shirts’ argument – and it’s a fair one – is that Vajjejjiva wasn’t democratically elected, but militarily and unconstitutionally installed, and that the government needs to permit elections ASAP. Taksin would certainly win such an election in a landslide.

To that end (i.e., getting Taksin back in power), Red Shirt protestors have continuously occupied strategic sectors of Bangkok for the last two months*. They poured in from the Northern provinces by various forms of ad hoc transportation – pick-up trucks, tractors, bicycles, feet – in significant numbers (though just how significant is hard to say, since the Reds claim they’re 500,000 strong, and the Yellow government puts the figure closer to 5,000). They came with pickets, with banners, with bullhorns, and – a recent and alarming revelation – grenades.

*None of which sectors are near my quiet and isolated suburb, I should add, which has remained unaffected and will continue to remain unaffected, and as long as I’m not a total idiot and go out and screw around near known Red territory, I’m totally safe. Sure, my movements have been slightly restricted, but never once have I felt endangered.

Their aims, as I understand them, are twofold: they seek, first, a democratically elected Prime Minister; and second, they wish to dissolve parliament. The Reds initially pursued these goals through nonviolent means – speechifying, clogging traffic and public transit, generally inconveniencing and irritating people by making it hard to get between points A and B. But when these docile measures got them nowhere, their actions turned more pernicious.

The Red Shirt action that seemed to escalate tensions from ‘simmering’ to ‘boiling over,’ that lent these previously benign demonstrations a deeply disturbing cast, occurred in late March. To wit: the Reds collected blood from their supporters and used it as artillery, hurling it on government buildings and officials*. (A large quantity of the blood later proved HIV-positive, making the whole thing much creepier and more malicious.)

*Somehow it wasn’t the action itself that was so sinister, but the threat of the action: the drenching was well-publicized beforehand, and the red-puddled, rust-smelling, spattered downtown crafted by my imagination (blood churning in the gutters like slow lava, viscous red drops coming off the eaves, the whole city echoing with falling liquid as in a cave) was far more powerful to me than the actual consummation of the act, which proved actually not very graphic. It was the mental image of Bangkok as gory war zone that did more than anything to convince me of the Red Shirts’ seriousness, and of the situation’s gravity.

Red Shirts spill blood as riot police look on.

Since that incident, the protests have intensified and contorted and blackened; they have turned horrifying and terrifying and everybody in this city wishes desperately that they would end. The army has been called upon to contain the protests, yet they’ve done far more exacerbating than ameliorating. Deaths are sporadic but not uncommon: three killed when a grenade struck a subway stop; a soldier slain by a bullet through the eye (for some reason the ‘through the eye’ bit was never once tastefully omitted when this story broke, and for some reason that detail makes the soldier’s slaying even more appalling – I picture, always, the kid that Tim O’Brien kills in The Things They Carried, the star-shaped bullet wound obliterating, too, that VC’s eye). The worst carnage, by far, occurred in early April, when twenty-one Red Shirts and soldiers were killed.

It’s never clear, when the Red Shirts and the army come to blows, who exactly the initiator is. Whenever troops and demonstrators have historically clashed, the military seems the aggressor – eg., the Boston Massacre and the Vietnam protests in DC and Tienenman (sp?) Square. And it’s not hard to imagine a bunch of nervous trigger-happy soldiers, youthful and combat-untested, bearing assault-rifles and an inflated, govt-promoted sense of the Reds’ combustibility/weaponry, firing the first shots.

At the same time, there’s some sinister and sober quality to the Red Shirts – it’s maybe the grim strength of their convictions, the life-or-death import of the protests for them (that they’ve persisted despite heavy casualties is both admirable and awful), their willingness to do evil and batshit-crazy things like dumping blood on people and firing grenades onto crowded train platforms – that makes me think that maybe they’re actually the instigators, the first-stone-throwers. After all, they have an incentive to make this conflict a violent one. Every day of the Red Shirt occupation is a financial catastrophe for Thailand. The nation’s economy relies heavily on tourism, and not surprisingly tourism has etiolated during the protests; Thailand’s GDP takes a measurable hit with each Red sunrise. So the more dangerous the country appears, the more imperative it is that the conflict resolves itself, and the more likely (the thinking perhaps goes) that Vajjejjiva will cave and give the Reds what they want.


The Red Shirts’ political passion, the immutable willpower that keeps them in Bangkok despite heavy losses, is awe-inspiring and kind of shaming for me. Shaming in that they care about their cause more than I can imagine myself caring about any cause, ever. It’s clear to them now that their lives are at constant risk, yet their numbers have not appreciably decreased; they are not cowed by the possibility of death.

I don’t mean this reverentially: their methods are strange and cruel and their desperation scares me. They’re probably in the right, but they’re impossible to root for. I mean, rather, that their passion is awesome (in the real sense of that word), and that my own convictions feel milquetoast by comparison.

A not-so-far-fetched scenario: if George Bush had fabricated a war right before the end of his second term and exploited a constitutional loophole and, for the ostensible good of the nation, remained in executive power for a third term: would I have risked my life protesting that? Would I have occupied Washington DC for months, under fire from the National Guard, even as my fellow protestors were cut down around me? Would you have? I suspect I wouldn’t have. I would’ve held a picket sign; I would’ve marched circles around the Lincoln Memorial, I would’ve written strongly-worded letters to congressmen and editors and all the other traditional recipients of strongly-worded letters. I would’ve gotten arrested, I think. I would’ve chained myself to the front bumper of the presidential motorcade. But I wouldn’t have let myself be killed, or even put myself in a situation where death was at all a possibility. No way.

And that, I suppose, is the difference between the privileged and the un-. When I get sick, the private health insurance that my family and I can afford foots the bill, no matter how extravagant the treatment. When a Red Shirt got sick before Taksin, he couldn’t afford even the hospital stay, and he died. No wonder, then, that the Reds view a lower-class-friendly government as a matter of life or death. Wealth is insulation against political change. My yuppie brethren and I aren’t going to be drafted to fight in Iraq, or have to fall back on welfare, or rely the asphalt-laying jobs provided by a stimulus plan. My quality of life won’t be much different under Barack Obama than it was under GWB. I am, therefore, anesthetized. That’s why I – and most people, I bet, in my comparatively filthy-rich homeland – don’t possess the Red Shirts’ fuck-everything courage. We don’t have as much at stake.

Red Shirt protesters on the march.


So the whole sad frightening mess has dragged on, as implacable and slow-moving as WWI-style trench warfare, each side making microscopic tactical gains and sustaining equally minute damage, not much, really, happening besides the senseless loss of life. A massive military crushing of the Red Shirts was rumored for weeks, and the prospect of such a savage denouement was alarming – the Reds’ reaction to an incursion could well have been not dispersal, but civil war. A violent climax to the conflict seemed inevitable.

And then, only yesterday (after I’d written the above post and come to a gloomy conclusion about the said inevitability of violence), the Red Shirts appeared to turn the attritional tide decisively in their favor: PM Vajjejjiva agreed to disband parliament and hold elections in November. That’s a remarkable turnaround, considering that elections are a radical step, and obviously inimical to Vajjejjiva’s interests. There are still details to be hashed out – the Red Shirts want elections much sooner than Vajjejjiva’s willing to hold them – but it appears that a truce may be coalescing.

It’s too early, I think, to declare the conflict ended; although both sides appear to have finally tired of brutality, I don’t trust either’s sudden magnanimity. But if, in fact, Thailand is out of the woods, I wonder how that rewrites the last two months. Is violence that a week ago seemed senseless abruptly justified? Now that the Red Shirts have emerged as putative victors, and the bloody rigmarole has yielded a righteous and noble solution, should I look more kindly upon the protestors? Democracy has won (or at least is winning) out; why, then, does this conclusion not feel triumphant? Perhaps because the methods through which this triumph was achieved are reprehensible: the product is admirable but the process deplorable. Posterity will tell us whether the ends justified the means.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Darunsikkhalai School of Innovative Learning: Part One

I’ve been teaching at DSIL for nearly a month now, and so I feel qualified to expound on the nature of my job and the efficacy of this school. Offering a few snap judgments, though, won’t be easy: DSIL operates under a complex and opaque educational doctrine, a set of uniquely Thai cultural mores, and –

I’m sorry. I’m less than a paragraph into this post and already I’m spouting misinformation: namely, I had the audacity to call what I do here “teaching.” I won’t make that mistake again.

What I am, according to my contract’s verbiage, is a Facilitator. No doubt you suspect, as I did before I began here, that the distinction between Teacher and Facilitator is primarily a semantic, and not functional, one. But the two positions actually confer very different roles/responsibilities, and to refer to myself as a teacher is grossly inaccurate*. To understand why that is, it’s necessary to know something about Constructionism – DSIL’s organizing philosophy and its raison d’etre.

*All the students do, in fact, call me Teacher Ben, though maybe that's just because Facilitator Ben would be kind of a mouthful. They've also taken to calling me Ben Ten, which delights 'em endlessly.

Students (and Teacher Steve) get psyched up at Sports Day, the entire point of which is to inflict migraine headaches via the incessant enthusiastic thumping of an unholy arsenal of bongos.

How the school is supposed to work

Constructionism, in a nutshell, means that the students teach themselves. That’s an oversimplification, but if you take away any salient point from this dissertation, let it be that. More precisely, Constructionism refers to project-based learning: children in constructionist settings design and create their own projects, and the process of creation often provides greater educational value than the project’s content – in other words, the doctrine is more concerned with how children learn than with what they learn.

According to constructionist thinkers*, each child has his own diverse interests, aptitudes, and learning style, and it’s the role of the school to develop those interests/aptitudes by catering to that unique learning style. In that sense, say constructionists (and I tend to agree), traditional, lecture-based education is ineffective: by treating every student as an identically vapid receptacle for facts, Classic Ed. is stifling their natural love of learning, inhibiting creativity, and not actually teaching them anything of lasting value.

*The leading such scholar is MIT’s Seymour Papert, revered by DSIL’s administration for his sagacity and by me for his epic beard.

When he's not raiding dumpsters, this crackpot is DSIL's patron saint. Just kidding, Seymour: you're an inspiration.

In place of traditional fact-deposit-and-regurgitation systems, Constructionism offers a model called “learning-by-doing,” or “learning-by-making.” The idea is that creating the aforementioned projects helps students foster their aptitudes and learn skills applicable beyond the classroom; and, because they’re ostensibly completing a project of their own choosing, the whole experience is much more positive and engaging to them. (I’m convinced that if all of Phil Goldfarb’s classes dealt with basketball and girls, he would be Hastings High School’s most enthusiastic attendant.) The constructionist framework does not cram academic trivia down students’ throats; instead, kids gain all knowledge organically, and that knowledge has practical application within the project, making learning natural, relevant, and, hopefully, fun.


Before every trimester at DSIL, the students congregate to propose project concepts*.

*For some reason the tone of this article resembles a National Geographic documentary voice-over… I imagine “The students congregate…” being read in much the same voice as “Every spring the elephant seals gather on the rocky shoals of the Valdez Peninsula to partake in a mating ritual as old as time.”

The projects range from the quotidian (Psychology) to the whimsical (The Beginning and End of the World) to the demanding (Chemical Engineering) to the completely incomprehensible (Funtrolegology – try finding that course offering in even the most liberal artsy New England college)*. Oftentimes, when students can’t agree on a single project, multiple proposals are shoehorned together: one class is currently attempting to combine Biology and Military History. Funtrolegology is also a portmanteau: as its facilitator, Ram, describes the class’ inception and naming, “Tro because they wanted to do astronomy, Lego because they wanted to play with Legos, fun for obvious reasons, and 'ology' because clearly it’s a legitimate science.”

*One interesting phenomenon is that the projects grow less bizarre and adventurous as the students get older. The kids tend to choose more fanciful ideas in their youth – classes have names like “Miracle World” – but, as they approach teenagedom, they tighten up, and their newly conservative proposals – eg., Economic History – would look right at home in any college curriculum. This, I suspect, is due to increased pressure both from parents and selves to gear up for the looming threat of University; more inventive projects are regarded as too facetious to serve as adequate preparation. I think this concern is pretty specious, for what it's worth.

Students immersed in Thailand's national sport.

Once the students have chosen their projects, each newly-formed group has a massive brain-storming session about what topics fall under their project’s umbrella, what activities they’d like to attempt, what field trips they want to go on, etc. At least in theory, the class plans the entirety of the project itself; the facilitator exists not to dictate a syllabus, but to, yes, facilitate their thinking – to propose directions in which the project might veer. Ultimately, however, the students decide which, if any, of our suggestions are worth heeding; usually my ideas don't pass muster for them.

After the brainstorming has spit its last lightning bolt and the class begins in earnest, the facilitator is charged with ‘guiding the students’ learning.’ To wit: in my class, Business Economics*, my kids decided that, among other things, they wanted to learn about accounting**. The fact that I am woefully unqualified to teach anybody about anything pertaining to business, accounting, or, for that matter, numbers, was almost irrelevant – since it’s not my job to teach them anything, I didn’t have to, say, prepare a lecture on profit margin (or experience the sweaty nightmares that surely would have attended such a duty). Instead, I merely drew up a loose activity: I had them research different measurements of corporations’ economic health, then look up the annual financial reports of various companies and decide, using those prior measurements, whether that company was thriving or in deep shit. Being a facilitator, in short, means being a Creative Activity Designer (except, as you’ll see in Part Two, when it means being an Innocent Bystander). The kids, ideally, are almost entirely self-directed and self-motivated – they dictate what they want to learn, and the facilitator creates unobtrusive methods of leading them toward knowledge.

*What you’re undoubtedly wondering right now is: how did an English and Environmental Studies major who spent four years at Amherst railing against the very existence of economics (let alone the unfortunate gravitation of his friends to that vile discipline like investment banks to a government handout) wind up teaching a Business Economics class? (For that matter, how did a fresh-out-of-college shmoe with zero teaching experience even get this job? That’s maybe the deeper mystery.)

The answer is complicated, but in a word, it was politics that landed me Business Econ. As the New Guy, I had no pre-associations with any of the project proposals, whereas many of the other teachers had certain groups of students they had to work with, or certain subjects they’d taught in the past, etc., and thus had dibs on their pet classes. Also, none of the project proposals really lent themselves to my narrow areas of expertise – try as I might, I couldn’t talk any of the kids into a Fishing Project. Also significant was that Teacher Take (she of the impeccable chicken-foot-stew-eating technique) had already signed on to co-teach Econ. Take was reportedly irascible and unfriendly, and many English speakers dreaded the prospect of co-teaching with her. Confident in my ability to coexist with anybody, I accepted the challenge; and sure enough Take and I have been almost entirely harmonious.

**Or, just as likely, their parents decided that the kids wanted to learn business accounting, because what 12-year-old in his or her right mind would give a shit about asset liquidity and debt ratios and balanced budgets and all that jazz?

On paper it sounds like a wonderfully quixotic place. But, as with most of life's wonderful quixotry, this school comes with a catch: nothing at DSIL ever goes smoothly in practice. Ever.