When I was a little, bitty baby,
My momma would rock me in the cradle,
In those old cotton fields back home . . .
-- The Highwaymen
There is something oddly surreal about hurtling through the Thai countryside listening to old country songs from the likes of The Highwaymen, George Jones, and Merle Haggard. My flight to Bangkoks Don Muang airport -- via Taiwan via Anchorage via JFK -- was an hour late, and my driver was doing his best to make up for lost time, else I be late for my meeting with the dean of the faculty, my new boss. Though the air-conditioning was on maximum, my chauffeur was sweating profusely. I tried to forget the Rough Guide warning of amphetamine abuse and erratic behavior among Thai bus drivers; because, after all, I wasnt traveling on a public bus but in a small Toyota van sent by the Rajabhat (Government college) to retrieve me from the airport. They obviously wouldnt send a drug-addled driver to bring me in. He then banked into a turn, laid on the horn, and swerving onto the shoulder passed a phalanx of teenagers on motorbikes. Turning his head, he flashed me a winning Thai smile. I laughed nervously. Ive been wrong before.
Staring out the backseat window, I tried to focus my attention away from the road and on the passing landscape of mango and tamarind orchards, scattered pineapple trees, banana patches, and rice paddies -- a world away from the cotton fields and kudzu vines of North Carolina, where my journey had begun. Willie Nelsons voice began to warble from the radio, and my driver turned up the volume. He began to sing along: "Blue skies, shining at me. Nothing but blue skies, do I see ..." Not bad. Listening to his vocal accompaniment, you never would have guessed that he couldnt understand a word of English.
The van was soon paralleling the lazy Bang Pakong River in the provincial capital of Chachoengsao and we swung into the Rajabhat, right on schedule for my welcome by the dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department. After initial pleasantries and a short campus tour, the dean took me to my lodgings; a turn of the century cottage shaded by immense fruit trees and seemingly protected by hordes of dancing geckoes. With a bow and a sawat dii kha, she quickly left me to my own devices, so that I might settle into my accommodations in peace.
I turned on the ceiling fans, surveyed the living room, and noticed a new copy of The Nation (one of Bangkoks two daily English newspapers) thoughtfully placed on a desk. After emptying my suitcases, I relaxed on the sofa and scanned the paper. Not surprisingly, the issue was filled with articles on Americas war on terrorism and the latest bombing raids on the Taliban. What was surprising, were the articles on growing anti-American sentiment among Thais, especially among the Muslim population in the southern provinces (roughly 5 percent of the entire population). I had been under the impression that Thais, both Buddhist and Muslim, harbored no sympathetic feelings toward the Taliban due to their reckless destruction of century old Buddhist statues and ruthless oppression of Afghan women.
The most shocking was an article describing a Bangkok prayer-gathering in support of the Afghan people. While the prayer service itself was a laudable event (the suffering of the innocent Afghan civilians is an unqualified tragedy), a pre-service lecture by Narong Phetprasert, vice dean of Chulalongkorn Universitys Faculty of Economics, was a disturbing exercise in unfounded accusations and incendiary rhetoric. Begging credibility, Phetprasert claimed that the acquisition of Afghanistans crude oil reserves was the real reason behind the US-led strikes on the Taliban, and that it was time for Muslims around the world to unite against the United States, "an evil hand that is destroying this planet."
A mantra that we have heard countless times since September 11th is "Everything has changed." Like most mantras, it grows ever annoying each time we hear it repeated, yet that annoyance doesnt diminish the truth of the statement. Because, on reading Phetpraserts comments in the newspaper, I began to feel (for the first in my life) the sting of patriotism. A strange feeling indeed for someone like myself, habitually prone in the past to criticizing, at times ridiculing, the excesses and arrogance of my country. Unexpectedly, I rushed to my new office at the Rajabhat to dispatch a letter to The Nations editor, lambasting the content of the Vice-Deans remarks.
The following day, when I returned to my office, I found an older gentleman sitting at a computer, laughing loudly. Although I had yet to meet any of my colleagues other than the department dean, the mans light skin and hair color told me that he was a farang (foreign) teacher, like myself. Hearing my entrance, he spun around on his chair.
"I hope you havent unpacked your bags yet, Mr. Blyler," he said, still laughing. "Ive got to admit it; youve got kahunas calling a dean at Chulalongkorn University a jingoistic fanatic."
I looked over his shoulder and saw that hed pulled up the latest edition of The Nation on the Internet. "I didnt exactly call him that. Is Chulalongkorn a big university here, or something?"
He laughed even harder. "Yeah, like this countrys Harvard, you bozo. How long have you been here, two days? Do you have some kind of death wish?" He then reached out his hand. "My name is Henry."
Henry was a large man, clean-shaven and smartly dressed; I guessed him to be in his mid-50s. I shook his hand. "I hope you mean for me to take that death wish comment metaphorically."
Henry shrugged, "Take it however you want to; but your names in the book; thats for sure," then laughed, "Youre lucky you used a lot of big words; maybe they wont understand it."
"The book? What are you trying to do? Freak me out?" I asked, beginning to feel a bit unnerved. I had never been to Thailand before, but my research had revealed that there were quite a few unexplained deaths among tourists every year -- usually attributed to lethal cocktails of Viagra and brothel abuse, not personal affronts to misguided academics. Id also learned that most expat English professors in Thailand were, at best, eccentric, at worst, plain crazy. I hoped for the former. "Is this your way of initiating the new guy?" I added, trying to hide my growing unease.
Henry raised an eyebrow. "Ive read your resumé, Blyler. I know that youve had a lot of experience teaching in Europe, but this is southeast Asia, son. Things operate differently here." He rose from his chair and slapped me good-naturedly on the back. "Youre okay though in my book. I used to work for the State Department before I got into these teaching gigs. Its refreshing to see a sense of patriotism in a fellow expat. Lets go across the street and put the hurt on a bottle of Mekhong" (rice whisky).
We walked out of the air-conditioned office and into the dense humidity of the afternoon. Within moments, we were both covered in sweat. "Dont listen to anyone who says that youll get use to this heat, Blyler. Theyre fools. And I dont suffer them gladly. By the way, youre invited to celebrate Loy Krathong with my wife and me next week."
"Whats that?" I asked, pulling at my shirt to let in some air.
"Its the Festival of Lights. You send a little lotus float down the river, carrying a candle and incense. Its suppose to symbolize the carting away of your sins."
"That sounds like a nice ritual."
"Of course it is," Henry replied. "This is a civilized country." He then winked at me. "As long as you behave yourself, Jack."
I nodded, thoughtfully. The warning was eerily similar to American Press Secretary Ari Fleischers "watch what you say" comment made shortly after the terrorist attacks, an admonition that signifies (more than anything else) how the life of an American citizen, whether at home or abroad, has indeed changed.