Monthly Archives: October 2020

Glass

พอเพียง Paw Pieng translates as enough, or sufficient. It is one of the mottos and goals for the Thai People put forward by Rama IX, HRH King Bhumipol The Great. When he came to power there was a great deal of poverty and he wanted development projects that would provide enough for the people. His plan calls for reasonableness (or wisdom), moderation, and prudence. He said that the underlying conditions for this must be knowledge and moderation. Over the years before and during his reign its often been clear that there must be an economy of self sufficiency, that the country should be able to live without the outside world, be able to shield itself from the valleys of the world economy. In my mind I have decided that the word “sufficiency” is a better translation of this idea than “self sufficiency” because it stresses “enough”. Learning a little about this philosphy gave a new context for an old friend of mine, one of my personal heros, Uncle Glass.

Uncle Glass is a very funny, joyous man. He is fast to smile, crack a joke, pull your leg, and smile again. He is not “well educated” but is very smart, and it would be mistake to underestimate him. He has a bad leg. I do not remember how his leg was hurt, his calf broken, but it was when he was a young man, maybe in his teens. He was put into a cart and taken to the doctors. The doctor said that his leg below the break would need to be amputated. The monks from the local Buddhist temple said that they could heal the leg. They took care of him, bathed him, changed his clothes, and fed him. I was told how long this healing took, but I remember only that it was most of a year. Lung Gaeow (Uncle Glass) can walk, but for most of his life he found a bicycle a better mode of travel at least for distances more than about 20 meters.

Until he retired, Uncle Glass lived in a shack. It had a tin roof and short posts, and a wood floor. The walls did not protect from the wind much. His first wife got ill and he cared for her until she died. He remarried someone that he knew from school. I think he was in his fifties when this took place. She developed diabetes and became bed ridden. He cared for her until she died. His third wife he married only so that the village would not talk. She was already in bad shape and he could not care for her without there being gossip unless they were married. She was still alive in 2008 if my memory is correct. The world could use more people like him.

When I visited him back then he was going to the river every morning on his bicycle, maybe about a 1 km ride. He would park and climb down the banks. At the river he set some hooks with bait and then wash. He carried water up the bank (maybe 20 feet down) and watered his garden. After several loads he would pull out the fishing gear. When I was there he caught about 5 skinny 4 inch fish. Up on the bank he put them directly on some leaves he set on fire. Then he sat down, got out some glutinous rice and spicy vegetables, and a shot or two of whiskey his son in law packed for him. The fish, now cooked dry, were packed in paper and he rode is his bike off to the pottery to make water jars. A good person helps people in need. A great person does this again and again.

Lung Gaeow appears in my Thai Pottery Video in the height contest. After I returned to the US I was asked to write for grants to bring Thai potters to The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Conference in 1991 in Tempe Arizona. Suwanee was to deal with all the arrangements in Thailand. I first asked for Uncle Good. I thought that he was nice, and had a love for making pots. He had a nice way with the traditional forms. He decided that he could not come because he was afraid that we would not have rice in the US and he could not eat bread. The word “eat” in Thai is really “eat rice”. The bread they sold in his part of Thailand was used as a desert dish, sort of like ultra-sweet Wonder®-type bread. The second person on our list had no birth certificate so they could not get a passport. Suwanee asked around. Finally two men agreed to come, “Craftsman Shotglass” (Chang Jork), and “Uncle Glass” (Lung Gaeow).

Lung Gaeow and Chang Jork (now deceseased) had a problem with alcohol. They were not anyone’s first choice but they were brave enough to come. My sole job at the conference was to take care of the 5 Thais, Suwanee (who could take care of herself) her sister (who stuck close to Suwanee), Mae (mom), and Chang Jork and Lung Gaeow. My Thai was rotten back then, but things worked out. So the morning after they arrived I went to see them. Gaeow says, “Louis, great to see you!” We are talking, how was the flight etc. “Louis, the flight was very nice but the airplane was cold, they brought us blankets.” “And you know Louis, they do have alcohol on the plane, I was worried. But it is so expensive and bottles are so little. Is it that expensive everywhere in America?”. I said, “no” .”You know Louis, we have alcoholism. Could you take us to buy some?”

So, I took them to the local alcohol store about a mile from their apartment. They walked in behind me. Gaeow grabs my arm kind of hard, it hurt a bit, “Louis, (he swings his arm to point across the store) Is all of this alcohol?” I answered, “No, that case over there is soda and Coke”. He said, “Louis,America is a great country!”.

He said, “Which type should be buy?” We finally settled on cheap beer. I picked up a six pack. They picked up two each. I showed them how to pay for it and we took it back to the apartment.

A couple of days later I stopped at the apartment. “Louis, we need more beer.” So we went back and got more. Gaeow told me that Jork could not read. Jork said,”Gaeow can’t read”, show us how to do this, then we won’t have to bother you.”
A few days went by. I was looking for them. They were not at the studio, not at Kurt Weiser’s house and not at the apartment. Then it dawned on me, “They are at the liquor store”. So I drove over to get them.

I walked in and they were not there. I turned to ask the cashier. He recognized me, “Its you!Where are those to guy’s from?” “Thailand”. “What language do they speak?” I answered “Thai” although really talking with each other its the local dialect. The cashier asked, ” Do you know what they did?” I am half already amused and a bit fearful.
“The rolled a big cigar with newspaper and a bunch of tobacco I think. The do smoke tobacco right?” I nod. ” You know, you can’t smoke in here” . I said that I would tell them. “After they lit that cigar, they squated in the back of the store in that language, What language did you say that was?” “Thai”. “Yeah, thats it. After a few minutes they came up to the counter, put thier hands on it and said, “Alcoholism, Alcoholism”. “I sold them some cheap whiskey. “You might want to tell them that they can’t drink in the store”. I thanked the cashier. As I was leaving he said, ” tell them the should not drink on the street either”.

So I head back to the apartment. “Louis!” Gaeow says,” I guess you were looking for us” . I said, “yes”. “Did you go to the liquor store?”Gaeow looks at Jork. “Yes” I said.
“I guess that the clerk said to tell us not to smoke in the store” I said, “Yes, it might explode”. “And we’re not supposed to drink in the store either?” “yes”. “Why not?” . “They don’t want drunk people in the liquor store”. Gaeow says something like, “how do they expect to make any money”. I tell them not to drink on the street. “They ask, “If we do, how much do we pay the police?” I explain that it is probably a mistake to try and buy off the police.

Chang Jork stopped by at Umdang Pottery when I was there in the early 2000’s. He gave me his Saw Duang ซอด้วง. This gift was probably the most significant of my life. He was not long on possessions. This was a return gift for bringing him to the US. He died a few years later.

I see Lung Gaeow nearly every time I go to Thailand. He is my elder. If I am to visit him I need to bring a gift. Normally this would be fruit, but he is an alcoholic so whiskey is what is expected. I no longer bring a full bottle.
Anyhow, I went to visit him about 15 years after his trip and he said, “Louis, Thanks for the whiskey. The neighbors don’t believe I ever was in America. Do you have any pictures of me there? And can you bring them here tomorrow?

I did not really understand this request until I stopped for another bottle of whiskey on the way the next day.

Lung Kaeow is retired. I saw him a few years ago.

Pastime

There are manythings that might get listed as the Thai national pastime. It could be chit-chat พูดคุย. It could be music. But to me, the quintessential Thai Pastime is eating. It is an activity central to everything. Eating in Thailand is an art form. How to eat? What to eat? Where to eat? Why eat? With whom? When to eat? The topic was brought to mind by a Facebook friend whom I have never had an eyeball with, never met face to face. She is quarantining in Bangkok, on day three of fourteen. She has been posting pictures of her food. They deliver it to her room. I have been looking at it and it has been making me sad. It seems inhuman. The first question that comes to mind”How can you serve that kind of food to a Thai person?” Then when you realize that they are doing so in Bangkok, City of Angles, the impregnable city of God Indra, city of the 9 gemsฯลฯ. How can it be true that you serve cold breaded cutlets of some sort with gloopy sauce from a bottle? The pictures she has been posting on Facebook have been provoking a Thai response from her family, homemade food delivered. Half way around the world I am relieved. How could this happen? I teach at a university. We often have Thai students. I want to meet them. I cannot tell a Thai person from someone from Cambodia or Vietnam. But I want to meet Thais. In general they are happy to meet me. I have friends of over ten years now that I met on campus. We have helped each other. The first Thai I met was while I was in school. For various reasons, I have no way to meet them. Sometimes I don’t know that there is a Thai student until I see their name during graduation. But about five years ago it dawned on me. I can tell Thai people or at least often can by how they eat. It is rare to see a Thai person in our cafeteria eating alone. You eat with a pyan เพื่อน , a companion. You share food. This might be dipping sauces, it might be the main dishes, it might be fruit. Food is generally eaten by pushing it onto a spoon with the back side of a fork. That is, unless its Chinese food, in which case its eaten with chopsticks. Exactly what food is on the spoon, each spoonful, is likely arranged. A small amount of sauce might have been gathered first, there might be a piece of a vegetable, there will likely be rice unless its a noodle dish. Spoonfuls are not too big. As this happens you see hands moving around the table, like a dance. It can be quite graceful. Things are shared. Foods have very specific sauces, often have vegetables that accompany them and side dishes. One of my favorite dishes, in some ways a simple, plain dish, is Kao Man Gai. Kao Man Gai is served with some cucumber slices. The rice is cooked in oil and broth of the chicken. The chicken is served on top of the rice. There is some cooked chicken blood on the side and a sauce that is very flavorful but usually not too spicey. This sauce is specific to Kao Man Gai. Cucumbers are a frequent side in street cuisine. I think that this is because they keep well all day. The soup that is served on the side is usually very mild thin broth. It reminds me of my mothers’s matzoh ball soup. The broth for Kao Man Gai has very little yichus. Yichus are the solids in soups, like vegetables or lentils. But Kao Man Gai broth does have Chinese winter melon or in the US sometimes cooked daikon radish or something mild like that. There are often fresh vegetables at the Thai table. These can be quite exotic tasting, bitter, sulphury, astringent -like or just crunchy long beans and cabbage. The taste “bitter” is important in Thailand. Bitter foods are often seen as good for the health, maybe like cod-liver oil in the West. I would not know. I have never had cod-liver oil. I have had many of the bitter vegetables in Thailand. They are “interesting” to eat. It would take something to get Gail to eat any more of these. And she is an adventurous eater. Some times of the day ask for certain foods. Where I lived, at Chez Umdang, late afternoon was time for Som Tum, Green Papaya Salad, the favored dish of Isaan, the Northeast region of Thailand. Who made the Som Tum varied. Usually it was one of the wonderful young women helping around the house, Gaw Wow named for the song of a bird, or Fon whose name means rain. These women were helpful and gratious in a way that cannot be overstated. They made awful days bearable, and had thier hands in making our good times in Dankwian magical. Green papaya salad is an exercise in balance of flavor, spicey, sour, fishy, garlic, and some textural variety. It is hard to get right, but Som Tum varies a lot, and there seemed to be people whose Som Tum was prized. But usually Som Tum was made by Gaw Wow or Fon. Green papaya is full of enzymes, and papaya juice is used as medicine in parts of the world and my thoughts about it are that its daily consumption might be a way to keep intestinal parasites under control. They are a problem in the Northeast, and Som Tum is endemic. Some som tum each day keeps the doctor away. If you are leaving me food to eat when I am buried or a ghost, skip the alcohol and leave me som tum. I will be grateful. I got picked up at the train station. It had been a long day and there was no food on the train. I was hot, tired, thirsty, and there were 4 adults and two children in the car. There was no air conditioning but fortunately it was in the cool part of the day, ตอนเย็น, interestingly named “cool time”. I was asked what I wanted to eat, I said “Duck Soup”. Its one of my favorite forms of street food. This question being asked of me was in some ways an honor, a choice like this having some real importance. I don’t think I would have picked up on this on my first trip. Duck soup. “Oh duck soup is very good” . “Jum, who makes the best duck soup?” . “Certainly its the vendor on the Dankwian Road”. “I like the stand in the old market”. “There is a new place by the Seven (11) by the mall, Its pretty good”.” Well the Vendor on the Dankwian Road does not open until 10pm. But its really good. Maybe we should see if he opened early”. “No its too far to turn back, lets try the place by Ghost Gate Market”. We turn and drive towards there. “Jum, do you really want to eat that soup? The flavor is weak” “Maybe there is some by the night market, Some vendors open early”. We drove around for two hours looking but not finding. My “lets eat something else” was not apparently acceptable.