Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kids’ Play & Macro-economics (It’s OK not to own much, maybe even best).

100 years after its occurrence, it was almost impossible for American kids to conceive of anyone not knowing about the Civil War. Not now, but at least many of us are learning not to call ourselves “Americans” or be otherwise so presumptuous. Or, at least I hope so.
In the early 60s John Kennedy instituted the Peace Corps and the President’s Physical Fitness Program. Kids at Fernbank Elementary School in Decatur GA (near the great Stone Mountain commemoration of the Confederacy, rival to Mount Rushmore, but also near Atlanta, liberal heart of the Old South) had to do jumping jacks, and try to do pull-ups, outside in the fresh air. This was good.
Only a year before, my family lived in southern Indiana, not so far from the infamous Mason-Dixon line. There we kids’d play Civil War soldier games. At our new home there was physical evidence of that conflict all around, including a large foxhole dug into an embankment by the house we’d moved into, where we found a piece of a wagon wheel. In 3rd grade now, I was finally learning to read, starting with Curious George books (staring a monkey) and soon moving on to the book that made my life, Trappers and Traders of the Old West (out of print, author forgotten). Into our purely white, “segregated” and well-dressed comfort, the daughter of a rich, prominent Brahmin from India was dropped – a real bomb indeed. She cried every day she was there, so tortured, by almost all of the other kids, was she. One girl, clearly the most intelligent in the class (the only one with glasses), confided concerns about this to me, but we knew there was nothing we could do. This was a school where later I had to disguise ballet tights my mother imposed on me (trading after-school ballet lessons for her sons for harp instruction she gave the ballet teacher’s daughter). Had my tights ever surfaced, my life at school would have become as unendurable as that of the unfortunate elite-class brown girl (who was soon gone and forgotten, at least by others).
Rosalyn, Jocelyn and Trixie took immense pleasure in taunting the “colored” garbage-men who’d arrive while we “exercised”, chanting “2,4,6,8, we don’t want to integrate!” as loud as they could, for as long as they could hope to be heard by the sanitation engineers, then falling over clutching themselves in laughter. People prize their individuality, unique idiosyncrasies and distinctions.
Only one other boy wore jeans - the adopted son of my father’s boss. He’d learned interesting things while in orphanage, and was fascinatingly world-wise. He even taught me how to trap and skin muskrats. Peavine Creek rolled down a long series of low falls, making great loafs and clouds of foam on washing days… there were “poor” folk living along it, who used it to do laundry. Thus, perhaps, the importance of clothes to my fellow school kids – some wore suits, emphasizing class-consciousness. Two close friends, Jimmy and Joe, claimed their new suits matched exactly… Who was associated with who was very, very important.
Sam, my friend with jeans and checkered past, had a maid working at his home, near my own. The maid spoke something called “Gullah” which I later studied about at university. Of course the linguists were misinformed (I was about to start learning much of this academic tendency): supposedly it was spoken only on islands off South Carolina. But no, not only did the maid speak it, but so did an elderly carpenter who lived by the train tracks near an overpass, “Uncle”, whom we gave Bantam chickens to raise. Sam had a wonderful big dog, Micky, who answered to whistles, herded chickens and treed squirrels. We spent lots of time in the woods, collecting mistletoe to sell in Christmas season, doing minor vandalism and occasionally terrorizing other kids. But only the white kids – whom we’d have been glad to be friends with, outside of that environment. For in it was another thing entirely - kids who spoke Gullah and only Gullah, who lived in a one-room shack with one bare light-bulb and a real “outhouse”, kids with whom we could follow streams which would disappear underground, and catch great snapping turtles that broke sticks larger than our fingers in their sharp mouths. We’d bring turtles home, causing Sam’s maid to scream in terror, “Terrapin! Terrapin!” and me to remember that Gullah word for turtle (and wonder if turtles pin down the world which rests on a turtle’s back…). We kids even hopped freight trains for short rides, though this wasn’t something for the young fancy dressers of Fernbank…
But, one day one of those found us in the woods and invited us to a “party” at a nearby suburban house where parents weren’t home. We were 10 and 11 then, and the world of wealth wasn’t yet the place of paranoia it’s locked into now. At the invitation, my heart skipped for joy. I was in! It was to be the party life! I was accepted! But there, sulky, petty Rosalyn, Jocelyn and Trixie, in frilly dresses, expected presents. They had hardly a fun or civil thing to say - no personal problem with us, I knew, as we’d practiced bike riding together when first learning… No, it was just their manner - never content, always demanding. Everything was material, and nothing personal but dissatisfaction. They were pretty - yes - but apparently not so much so inside. I no longer wanted to be their friend.

Those who have too much often also have too little, and not just compassion. Too little sharing, give-and-take, adventure and love of life. They just want, and want much more strongly even than those do who’ve hardly ever had much at all. Because that’s all they know. I learned this without words, and thus much more about “anthropology” than I ever learned from the wonderful, charismatic, imagination-inspiring Margaret Mead, an important and popular writer throughout the 60s who came to lecture at Emery U., where our fathers taught… My mother had been reading to me from her People and Places, and I took it to ask for an autograph (Sam and I were quite familiar with the academic area, from raising white rats for the psychology department, and raiding the Coke machines for prize-winning bottle-caps). She liked us, asked that we attend her Introductory Anthro series, and meet her after class every time to show lists of words we didn’t recognize (she quite liked boys that age). We complied. In class, she said she knew 40 languages, found herself thinking in other languages sometimes; and I believed her. Now I know how long she spent in Samoa, (she gained fame from Coming of Age in Samoa, now regarded as a Utopian fantasy, after spending less than half a year there in the 20s), and also how long it takes to learn anything of another culture. I’ve lived on the opposite side of the globe from where I started in two very different countries (Korea and Thailand), for a total of well over a dozen years now. I speak mainly Thai at home, and publish books on local history and culture, but am just beginning to really know parts of it, and to use the language, in my private mind, more than just rarely, and only in phrases. And Thai is a “simple” language: another girl from India, much later in my life, tried to teach it to me… Her family, she explained quite truthfully, had picked up the language in-country, and still used it in correspondence, finding it much easier than English, or Urdu.
We tend to like thinking highly of ourselves, and to be demanding of other people. Often we claim more than what we have any right to. This indicates immaturity, that we are not yet fully developed. How then “Intelligent Design” but perhaps within Evolutionary context? Let’s hope we are still developing anyway. Margaret Mead meant well, and her ideas certainly influenced mine, and encouraged me to live with, and try to understand other ways of life (like trappers and traders of the Old West had to do!).
In the Aranachel Pradesh wilds of the Upper Bhramaputra, and in the highlands of central Kalimantan (Borneo) live women who consider any man who hasn’t killed another man not worth having sex with. I’ve come to strongly feel that it is not the job of any outsider to attempt to alter this viewpoint, at least not directly.
Many great writers have glorified the incredible cultures of people adapted to extreme circumstances, living where others cannot: Lawrence van der Post’s Lost World of the Kalahari and Farley Mowat’s The Desperate People and People of the Deer stand out in my mind. Siberians, Tarahumara, Yanamamo, Amazonian tribes in Brazil, Incas, Australian Aborigines and Southeast Asian Sea Gypsies have also made for fascinating reading. One marvels with reverence at knowing of such achievement of spirit, of civilization without exploitation and so much successful interaction with nature. To learn of such folk is to learn that there are varieties of desirable, non-technological advancement we should revere, and certainly not even diminish, let alone demolish. Yet these varieties of society are on the endangered list. The greatest threat to them is globalization and the cash-addicted lust to consume which is blinding and crippling the world.
Would we know about valuable medicines like quinine, cat’s claw or even aspirin if transmitted knowledge only came through government schools? Some people need to live “close with nature” (clichéd phrase or no), and if, by “wringing hands” we cannot find a way to provide such people safety from “economic” demands, our close descendents will have lives much less happy than we wish to know.
We use transportation too much, use too much oil, cement, combustion, and general overhead getting what we need. Blinded by potential for ease, ‘modern’ people have become over-worked, over-fed, lacking in community and confused. People used to make jeans themselves, from marijuana fiber - it’s not just urban legend, conspiracy theory, sour grapes, or rabid sentiment. People provided for themselves, perhaps generally better than most do now (at least in important kinds of quality); and it was a good, healthy, wholesome thing. Now we consume things produced far, far away, and allow opinion to prevail that everyone needs to be involved in the exchange networking. What I want to stress is the opposite - without ‘disconnected’ people, economically, we will have more ‘disconnected’ people emotionally, mentally and socially (what is it now? AD/HD? Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder? Aspergers? Bi-polar? Whatever one uses, we’ll have more of it if we don’t right our flopped-over ship)! There’s too much focus on “standard of living” and almost none on “quality of life” (which, when we allow torture to protect our ‘freedom’, we certainly do not have).
Academicians usually favor “intellectual property” but, in my mind, anyone with love of God and this life will not. Too many of us never learned to share, nor to trust. It’s not necessary to determine where everything will come from, only to be capable of meeting new challenges as they arrive. Academicians, like doctors, tend to be ‘control freaks’ asserting authority and unwilling to respect divergent opinion. And here I mean respect, not just tolerate: respect as in admire, honor, and care for. No, we all do as I myself, unfortunately, want to do - assert the self and claim superior knowledge. But it’s not more technology or competitive skill we need, but the self-confidence to know we can make do, find what we really need with or without what we might sometimes want.
Some say, “we need to better educate and train our workers.” But centralized power and pyramidal systemings are killing us. What we need is more reliable individual decision-making. We need to stop trying to be boss! When I sold art and artifacts in Columbus, Ohio, over a decade ago, it was conventional wisdom among local gallery owners that the “self-taught” were the brightest spot on the aesthetic landscape…

In Thailand almost 20 years now, and ChiangRai, part of the “Golden Triangle”, over 12, I’ve also lived and worked with Hopis, Navahos, Koreans and Mexicans. For years I worked in other people’s art galleries, then for three ran my own, specializing in aboriginal and ethnographic art and artifacts. I admire wood-carving and weaving and many of the practitioners of those arts whom I’ve come to know. For me, to live a self-sustaining life without cash is a fond, though futile, dream.
For the woman I’ve lived with eight years now, things look different. She’s lived without cash, and spoken to me of there still being freedom in Burma - freedom to find an unoccupied hill in the jungle and make a farm there. Like trappers and traders of the Old West giving way to settlers and cowboys, her Lahu ‘Hunter’ (Musur or ‘good roast tiger meat’) tribe now does agriculture. But land’s a problem – she’s stateless and without any legal right to own. For the value of my car, perhaps, she might purchase citizenship; we consider this, but the car is important too. I use it to distribute books, and also to carry food and building materials to her family home in the high hills just this side of the border. As I began composing this, she was working for 25 cents an hour, too shy to ask for the 50% raise I’m sure she could have successfully demand (she worked, to support her family, only when my finances were tight; as I continued working on this, she worked for 40 cents an hour, 10 hour days, then began to get more handicraft sales).
I mention these personal details to show that I’m not just a bleeding-heart idealist unhinged by fanciful books or Luddite fantasy. I write about indigenous wisdom when I can, but hardly as an anthropologist. I use local herbs on a daily basis, but am hardly scientific about that either. I’ve sometimes been a teacher, who found need to motivate students, and often a student, confused by a language I speak intimately, daily (and also confused by a culture I’ve been deeply immersed in for over 20 years). What I want, and what I’ve found, money can’t buy. We must all learn to cherish what cannot be traded, and although is free, doesn’t come easily.

“Live simply that others might simply live” needs expanding: Encourage simplicity, diversity and independence, that our children might have lives, too.

We don’t need to be richer,
We need to be more caring.
We don’t need more trade,
We need more community and self-reliance.
We don’t need to teach the rest of the world,
We need to listen to it.
We don’t need a plan, we need many.
We need justice, checks on power, less
Nationalism and more humility.

What’s most wrong with ‘Globalization’ is the diminishment of self-sufficiency, the snowballing of cash-addiction, the empowerment of unfettered, autocratic, often amoral mega-corporate bureaucracy, and accelerated loss of cultural diversity. The unchecked power given to agents whose only goal is satisfaction of greed (yes, little old ladies living off the stock market can be accused of that) is alone enough to make globalization a complete horror; but the loss of self-respect via diminished opportunity for display of integrity in adjusting invention to be appropriate for local conditions and local distinctions, and used without incurrence of obligation (as befits proper moral understanding - I’m talking here of that nonsensical idea “intellectual property”) looms with similarly ghastly duress. Globalization equates not only to homogenization, but to cheapening, trivializing actually, important aspects of life - through the effects of propaganda, the inundation of advertising. The stuff once of fantasy becomes mundane. Does no-one now care about quality of spirit?
From the “Free Trade” of globalized corporations (whose contradictory legal definition as a person who/which can be owned confirms questionable status “above the law”) we get myriad forms of pollution including morally bankrupt politics where superior money always wins, corrupt dynasties of cowardly decision-makers intent on buying happiness or perhaps some kind of grandeur, mega-tons of toxic waste, carcinogens, radiation, chemical spills, ozone depletion, carbon-dioxide inundation, water that needs to be cleaned before use, increased liver disease, bone and other cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, emphysema, asthma, learning disorders and etc… Environmental conservation and protection become but juvenile slogans as our resources go mostly to gluttony and over-indulgence, generating usually but palliatives, absurd status-symbols and snubs to the modest or poor. We get not only a dying Earth, but fear and dying soul, as religion becomes prostituted, torture justified and laughingly indulged, and humility and open-mindedness turned into treason. Accountability disappears, GMO crops replace nature, quality of life becomes a forgotten dream, and the future evaporates for humanity. To put ‘free’ and ‘trade’ together is just to propagandize.
There’s always resistance to recognizing past mistakes - most especially exploitationist attempts at do-gooding, “progress”, about which I can’t help but see two sides. No longer is there much focus on ‘Native’ exposure to Western examples denigrating trans-generational cultural transference (demeaning cultural values): no, but it has become recognized that extra-cultural involvement is usually interference. This is real; so is TV and government, also the evils of almost unavoidable cash-addiction. People who stake enough to really care feel strongly about this, as I do - and from living my beliefs (more than I found myself able to before coming here) I’ve found myself able to think in ways more clearly formatted.
People are better adjusted, healthier, happier and more productive when involved in decision-making regarding their work and home. Sweatshop factories may provide increased purchasing power for many, but certainly not quality of life, actualization of potential, or any kind of social stability. People are never without choice; the big question is how much the wealthy will recognize this, and when (meaning, rather willingly or, eventually, unwillingly). In so many ways, hunger for cash has attained a moral equivalency to hunger for addictive intoxicants, and similar also to the power-mad lust for control besetting modern society.
Laws designed to enhance or increase state power, instead of to protect and insure the rights and welfare of individuals, cannot promote peace, well-being or significant, lasting cultural growth. Corporate, like feudal, hierarchy leads to disease and despair, humiliation, crime, fear, rage, the expense of protective weaponry and guards (who guards – protects us from - the guards?), restriction and excessive taxation. What it gains for those on top is matched by what is simultaneously lost for them, something which apparently only the more enlightened, or perhaps more exposed to reality, ever recognize. Perhaps those aware of or bothered by losses to quality and potential in their ‘powerful’ lives enjoy the superiority implicit in infliction of distress, but this is clearly a false superiority. When the powerful “enrich” themselves at the cost of society, it’s like having the ball, but no game.
It may be widely believed that some unity in belief and understanding is essential to the integrity of a nation, and that much deviance from the norm would lead to common disaster, but it is proven that real strength and stability lies in variety, in diversity. Most might disagree, but I find I must submit, increase in trade under the present system with its dominant multinational mega-corporations, tends towards decreased diversity, and thus increased inherent instability and peril to human success and future generations.

Almost daily there’s important, but glum, news, reminders of immature leadership and the “weakness of the flesh.” One repeatedly needs to seek out avenues of new hope…
Instead of poisons to attack poisons, we can use life to strengthen life. A strong system can resist intrusion, and self-repair. Violence is just violence, and seldom a final solution except in case of death. Disease can often be rectified by producing change, strengthening the system and closing invasive routes.
If body politic can be seen as parallel to physical, blooded body, national boundaries can be seen as a kind of strangulation or poison, and far extents of cultural similarities as potential for life enhancement. It is the cash-poor, we must realize, who harbor the incubation of culture as it revives itself. Artists, scholars, political theorists, commentators and others must endeavor to check the ability of the overly-moneyed to squash that life.
Burmese generals, military-might maddened and punitive, surely feel a strong moral superiority to current meta-materialistic Thai polity. Other regimes in Southeast Asia, in Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Viet Nam, concur, hypocritically seeing Thailand as sold-out. The Thai, naturally sensitive to this, respond in their special Thai way - ‘nevermind’ and if you must talk about that, well, we just won’t be talking together. Thais now are, anyway, doing much better, materially, than many of their neighbors, and having fun with make-up, status symbols, pretensions, and putting cement everywhere. This is “progress” (kwam jalern in Thai, the bringing up and bettering, enriching, of things).
But the unmitigated acquisitive lust of the Thai ruling clique has met a powerful nemesis in the tricky Burmese autocrats. Both are heavily influenced by Chinese multinational societies, networks, though secret and often rival, which are poised to eventually become king-makers in Beijing, as they have been in Taiwan. These societies represent a new form of the Japanese East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Well trained through experience in drug trafficking, they have been taught by, and are well able to contest with, MI5, the KGB and the CIA.
The last-name societies of the Teh Chew, Hainan, Hakka, Wu - these are monetary forces with clout to rival nations of tens of millions. There are quiet representatives for them most places. Their influence in eastern and southern Russia, west Canada, Indonesia, Kashmir, and throughout Southeast Asia, especially in terms of high-seas crime, should not be under-estimated. A few hundred of the top men are billionaires. Some exert major influence over trillions. Theirs is a particularly Chinese agenda, which has involved removing non-Chinese tribals from Yunnan into Shan State. There the ‘lowly’ tribals are controlled by Chinese mobster/warlords not strongly under Beijing control, but very deeply involved in international Chinese trucking and extended transport. Some Japanese goods still successfully compete with things Chinese: vehicles, photographic stuff, pornographic videos. But it’s Chinese speakers who pull the most important strings in Southeast Asia.
Distressing reports have long been narrated by refugees clearly suffering great emotional distress, of Burmese army gang rape, unpaid forced labor, eviction of whole villages, ethnic cleansing, general gangsterism and recently even human sacrifice! Thousands of Lahu tribes-people lost their homes and livestock to Wa people relocated from the Chinese border. Tens of thousands of these Wa came from Yunnan, China, accompanied by, it seems, over 1000 Chinese ‘advisors’. They now live just north of the Thai border.
These displaced populations have brought to the fairly porous northern border area pneumonia, hepatitis, malaria, dengue, typhus, typhoid, cholera, encephalitis, TB and even, reportedly, humans infected with anthrax! Tea pickers and other laborers cross daily and traders and even big businessmen do regular, though often officially unsanctioned, cross-border commerce. Altogether over 150,000 people have recently been relocated in the Chinese and Thai borderlands of Shan State, Myanmar, where the Wa produce amphetamines (used by truck drivers, in sweat-shops, by laborers...). Tribal refugees continue to arrive in Thailand, but are not recognized as such, but called, rather, economic migrants.
Until we work out better micro-economics, we’ll never effectively counter the greed contributing to stress in our lives, in so many ways, today. Small is indeed, and still, beautiful. And peace better than noise.

Whoever is self-sufficient is rich... (Tao Te Jing, Part I, 33)
Grace is shameful, something inferior (Part I, 13)
The Man of Calling does not heap up possessions (Part II, 81)
True Words are not beautiful.



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