Monday, February 15, 2010

a death in the family

So I've been to a few funerals since being here, but yesterday my neighbor (a teacher at one of my schools and a house I've eaten dinner at more than a few times) 's mother died. This didn't come as a huge shock as she was 92 and her health had been failing for some time. Anyhow, I am now in the process of developing a better understanding of the Thai funeral and Thai attitudes towards death in general. (People have asked me quite a few times how the Thai funeral compares to an American one, I respond by saying that I've never been to an American funeral, but because America is a melting pot of cultures, religions and whatnot, there isn't exactly a standard)

Anyhow, the first and most striking difference is that at Thai funerals, people don't "grieve." I think I've mentioned before (but I'll do so again) that in Thai, the word "serious" is a bad thing, and if people do their best to be "no serious." This applies to death as well. I'm sure the advanced age of the deceased and that it wasn't terribly shocking helps put people at ease, but even at funerals for relatively young people I've been to, I haven't really seen any great outpouring of bereavement.

I don't, however, want to imply that this funeral was a wild party with karaoke and dancing girls.

When I arrived yesterday evening there were only a handful of people there (yesterday was the first of four days). I greeted my neighbor and was taken into the house to wai the buddha figure and the deceased (there was a photo of her and incense and flowers to "offer" to her, I think the body was in a casket buried under flowers, but I'm not sure). Then I sat outside with some other people who had showed up. And things were pretty mellow. People asked me about what kinds of Thai food I can eat, my girlfriend, my age (pretty typical stuff) and other conversations seemed pretty comparable. The only way to tell that this event was different than others was that (most) people were dressed in black and white (though dark jeans and t-shirts were pretty common). More people arrived, snacks were had, and eventually a group of monks showed up. The monks did a series of chanting prayers, people wai-ing while they chanted, though many conversations continued through it, and nobody shushed the kids who were playing and trying to get me to talk to them. Then people sat and talked for a while, then started going home. When I walked back to my house there was a group of men drinking and gambling.

This morning I went over before school and ate rice soup with a group of people.

Anyway, as far as belief-y type stuff, it's important for the family of the deceased to give lots of things away (make donations) in response to a death. The belief being that everything that they give away, the deceased will have in the afterlife (so the make donations and gifts of food, clothes, refrigerators, gazebo-type things called "sala"s. I'm under the impression that the next few days will be similar, and I've heard that food, drinking and gambling will be more prominent (or maybe that depends on what time I arrive).

All in all, it's pretty interesting stuff, and I really like the choice to essentially honor the deceased's life and try to make them comfortable in the afterlife rather than mourning their death.


P.S. Completely unrelated, but I meant to mention it a while ago in a random blog post I never made, but my family here is genuinely afraid that if they close the windows and turn off the air conditioning in the car, they will die of suffocation. I tried explaining that this was not the case, as when it is cold in America and we don't open the windows or have the fan on, we don't die. They said that's because American cars are different from Thai cars. That was while we were driving in their Isuzu. I just thought it was amusing, and slightly annoying on the mornings when it's actually kinda cold here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My most awesome experience?

Today I headed to the Aw Baw Daw at 3:30 for what has now become my regular, thrice-weekly English lesson. When I arrived, people were saying something using the word "fei" (I think it was fei mai). This word has many uses, and refers to everything involving fire, light and electricity. At first, from the pantomimes, I thought they were talking about a fireworks display, but it quickly became apparent that they meant something was on fire that wasn't supposed to be. I had been wondering about the presence of the big red tanker truck that was always parked at the ABD, and I became illuminated as three office guys threw on their flip flops and headed out the door, asking if I wanted to come as they went.

So, we hopped in the cab and roared off. And they were probably the most laid back fire crew in the world. As we went, one of the guys kept playing with siren, honking it at girls and pretty much anyone else, and the other two cracked jokes back and forth and asked me how to say some fireman terminology in English.

At first I had been under the impression that a house was on fire, and my head filled with visions of running into a burning building and manning a big hose and I was excited and nervous, since I really wanted to help, but had no idea of what to do or how to do it.

But that didn't really matter. We shortly arrived at the site of the fire about 10 km away. Or rather, we arrived near it. It turned out that it was actually a field that was burning, explaining why there wasn't a great sense of urgency. Fields are regularly burned here (it was fallow), and the only thing that made this special was that apparently it wasn't intentionally set ablaze, and presumably steps to control the fire had not been prepared.

Anyhow, we got to the end of the little side road and started out onto the rice fields, but the guy driving decided the truck wasn't really the right vehicle to navigate the humps between rice paddies (typically gone over by motorcycles, pickups and tractors). So we sat for about 10 or 20 minutes looking at the smoke a few hundred meters away contemplating what to do. They made a few calls and talked to some onlookers to try to figure out if there was another way. They even had a guy scout ahead on his motorcycle to see if the way got better or worse (it got worse). Then we turned around and kept on going down the road to a house that had a private road out to the fields, closer to the fire. They scouted that road, decided it was too narrow, made the decision that a tractor was better equipped to deal with this fire (it could push dirt around and whatnot, and actually get to the fire), then we headed back to the ABD. Honking at pretty girls and joking all the way.

The only disappointing thing about the experience was that they wouldn't let me get up on the back of the truck to wave at my students playing volleyball when we went past my school. Actually, one guy was all for it, but the other two said it was dangerous. They did tell me they'd call me for the next fire, though.

We got back to the office about the time we usually wrap up the English session. I hung out for a few minutes (to see if the whiskey they'd been joking about would turn up) then headed home to tell everyone about my awesome experience.

So yeah. My status update is that things are going really well for me. I'm still doing more outside of my house and spending more time in my community, and I'm feeling really good about it. I wouldn't have gotten to ride in a fire truck if I hadn't started doing this, and I'd probably still feel frustrated and question my presence here.

Whoop whoop! (That's my fire truck whoop.)