Sunday, April 19, 2009


So, it turns out that this Thai naming thing just get's weirder. After doing some research (something I probably should have done before writing the previous post), I discovered the reason Thai names are so gosh-darn long and gee-golly hard to pronounce is because each one is unique. Not only that, but each one is required by law to be unique. Sort of. It's like this: Thais generally didn't have last names until the early 20th century, when legislation was passed requiring them. For some reason, at that point it was decided that every family had to have a different surname (I suppose to circumvent the disastrous effect that multiple unrelated people having the same last name has had upon Western civilization over the last thousand years). So in theory, the first people who signed up for surnames had the option of very simple ones whereas the Johnny-come-latelys had to keep adding more and more sounds to the names in order to make them unique, right?

Not quite. Thai names are actually the result of a painstaking process: a Buddhist monk must pore over various astrological charts and tables before deciding on an appropriate, auspicious (and unique) name for a family or individual. Since last names are peculiar to a family, two people with the same one are by definition related. But doesn't this mean that as time goes on, people with the same last name are going to become (on average) less and less related, as family trees expand? And since Thai surnames are sort of like hereditary titles in that they can only be carried on by a male heir, names must be going the way of the triceratops all the time. And here's where it gets really weird; doesn't this mean that eventually everyone in Thailand will have the same last name? I mean sure, it'll take millenia. I'm just saying is all.

Also: first names are likewise incredibly varied--according to Wikipedia (I mean honestly, where did you think I was getting my information from?), 35% of Thai first names are unique, which is pretty high when you think about it--one in every three people you meet has a name you've never heard before (that is, if you're Thai). And come to think of it, in three months in Thailand I can't think of any two people I've met that have the same first name, the notable exception being two different guys named Bandit (no joke). For obvious reasons, they both prefer this to their far less badass nicknames. This further explains the necessity of the nickname system; it's usually harder to remember a person's name if you've never heard it before or if it's uncommon (unless it's memorably weird, but I can't imagine what a memorably weird Thai name would be); the point is, when every name in your society is either unusual or unique, names have sort of defeated their own purpose, except for that of repelling evils spirits, curses, and other bad shit.

I have a hard enough times remembering dumb American names. Don't be alarmed if I don't remember yours.

Also, I think I just used two semicolons in a single sentence somewhere back there. I must apologize to the rolling-in-his-grave corpse of Kurt Vonnegut. Sorry!

Friday, April 10, 2009


Just to let y'all know, I've decided to start writing more, possibly shorter pieces for GBB. For whatever reason, I have avoided making this blog an online journal. I've tried to make each post have a thesis or speak to some deep sociopolitical/sociological shit, and I feel like this has stopped me from writing as often as I'd like. Sometimes there just isn't a larger argument to make, you know? So, in the interest of getting me to actually WRITE more, I've decided to just post about whatever I feel like, no matter how trivial or banal. Instead of being a collection of mini-essays (my original goal with this thing) this will now be more of an all around chronicle of my time here in Bangkok. From here on out, I hope to write at least once a week, and more if I can. This one here is about Thai nicknames. Enjoy!

Just about ever Thai person has a nickname. Many Americans have nicknames--as do many Italians and Eskimos and Angolans--but not quite like this. In English speaking countries someone might reduce their given name to a monosyllable for the sake of brevity (or perhaps levity) or acquire an affectionate hypocristic from friends or family. A grown man might even request that his friends start refering to him as T-Bone or Spike, against his better judgment. But Thai nicknames are somewhat different. For one thing, they are given at birth rather than acquired. To understand why this is, let's look at the conventions of Thai naming.

First and foremost, Thai names (both given names and surnames) tend to be long. For the sake of example, here are some recent additions to my facebook friends list: Waranya Tieammuang, Saran Mahasupap, Natthawinee Thannin, Atchara Saigaew--you get the idea. Even when they're not all that long, they're often difficult to pronounce, so children are given nicknames which in effect become their main appelations in all but the most official or formal of circumstances. Much of the time these nicknames are simply Thai words, and tend to be rather mundane or even slightly negative (someone told me this has something to do with warding off evil spirits or somesuch)--Kung (prawn), Lek (small), and Get (raisin) are common examples. Like I said, some are rather negative, like Uan (fat) or Moo (pig).

But the best Thai nicknames tend to be English words. Golf seems to be one of the more common ones, particularly for girls (it was explained to me matter of factly that, "Well, a lot of peoples' fathers like golf." Fair enough. Other funny ones include Pink (or Pinky), Oat, Note, Dookie (a Green Day reference I drunkenly made after meeting a girl named Dookie was met only with blank stares), Champ, Top, Pop, Mook, Pez, Air, and Oil. I have a lesson group at Berlitz with two kids named Fame and Boss in it--if only Champ were also in that class. Again, many are mundane: children are often nicknamed Ay, Bee, and See to denote their birth order, or named after letters of the alphabet (Oh, Pee, et cetera). Anyway, since I am no longer bound by any sort of rhetorical regulations, I think I'm going to eschew conclusions from now on too! Peace!


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are You Not Edutained?

I work in a mall. Yep, that's right, a shopping mall. Floor 4A, Siam Paragon. For those not familiar with Bangkok, Paragon is a (mostly) upscale mall here in Bangkok. This place is nuts. The combined value of the merchandise on one floor of Paragon trumps any mall or shopping complex I've seen anywhere else. Really. There's a huge pan-Asia food court, all the expected American fast food joints (some with multiple locations within the mall), a bunch of fast food places I've never seen before (Mos Burger, anyone? Or how about Auntie Anne's, the fast food pretzel shop?), lots of more upscale chain dining establishments, at least two Starbucks, a bowling alley, a karaoke center, and of course the requisite multiplex. One of the floors seems restricted to clothing and accessory stores with Italian names. The biggest aquarium in Southeast Asia occupies the mall's basement, and there's a fancy car showroom on the fourth floor. We're talking fancy cars here (see picture). You have to wonder what Thai can afford this shit, especially with the 100% automobile import tax??? Paragon calls itself the "Pride of Bangkok" and it's a monument to capitalism and the consumer society that one would expect to find in Dubai or some other artificial, climate-controlled city of the future, not dirty, sweaty, ramshackle Bangkok. And it is surrounded by four or five other malls and shopping complexes, each catering to a different demographic. Even in a city of 8 million people, where is the market for all of this? This is supposed to be a developing country, after all.

As I said I work on floor 4A, which is sort of a Being John Malkovitch-esque half-floor buried deep in the anterior of the Paragon complex, and only accessible via certain elevators (no one ever really takes the stairs in Thailand. You just don't.). 4A has been dubbed the Explorium, an "Edutainment Center" catering to kids or, more accurately, to their moneyed parents. This portmanteau-happy realm includes a kids' gym, a miniature indoor tennis court for children's lessons, some sort of dojo, a music school and several language centers, including my own. There's also a place I haven't quite figured out yet, the grammatically questionable Babies Genius, which I don't believe has any affiliation with the similarly named 1999 motion picture. Seriously, Babies Genius? Is that possessive? Or did they just put the plural S in the wrong place, perhaps for copyright reasons? Regardless, I don't know what they do in there, and I hope never to find out.

Also great about Paragon is the muzak; some of it is what would be expected: J- and K-pop, instrumental versions of timeless pop hits, and the like. But the lion's share of the piped in music easily goes to Nouvelle Vague(the band not the film movement)-esque sort of bossa-nova-lite versions of timeless pop hits. Seriously, there's gotta be hundreds of them. Some are kinda redundant--do we really need the Carpenters to sound even more like elevator music than they already do?--and some are just weird: one of my favorites so far is "November Rain." Stripped of all the ass-rock bombast and histerionics of of the original, and lacking Slash's memorable wank session, it reveals itself to be one of those songs that could be done convincingly in any style; so much so that I didn't recognize the it for what it was until almost the very end, the vaguely Romance language-accented female voice and unobtrusively polyrhythmic percussion soothed me so. I'm not kidding. Best track of 2k9. Strike that. Best track of any year.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Loyal readers (have your numbers hit double digits yet, I wonder?): as many of you may by now know, my time in Ho Chi Minh City has ended a bit earlier than expected. If I have time I will devote a future post to the whole sordid mess, but for now just know that the Saigon phase of GBB is over. I would like to continue writing on here over the next month or so as I travel around South East Asia and Japan, although as I will be constantly on the move and not always within easy reach of the information superhighway, I may not post as much as you or I would like. Or who knows, maybe it will be exactly as much as you like. We'll just have to wait and see. If you're itching for some Stephen Johnson Farrell in your life and can't wait until whenever it is you will see me next in person, head on over to my "Flickr photostream internet web-site" at, I just uploaded a mess of new pics on that there thing. So thanks to everyone who's kept up with me on here, sorry I couldn't write more often, but I kept finding myself quite busy with real life. But it's been fun. I hope to see all of you soon. Oh, and have a Happy New Year! And remember to enjoy Bacardi products responsibly.

Stay up, players.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let's stay together

Now usually I don't do this as R. Kelly says, but... here's a post that is short and to the point and isn't trying to make some convoluted sociopolitical argument. I gotta bicycle! That's right, it's what you might call a "piece of shit" and it cost me a whole $20 (350,000 dong to be more precise), and in the words of the guy trying to sell it to me, as translated from the Vietnamese by my roomate Khoi, "you get what you pay for." Although I'm only going to be here for another 2 months, I figured it would be a good idea to get a bike so I can ride to and from school instead of taking cabs (something I wouldn't normally do but it's so cheap here) and xe oms (motorbikes), which are usually driven by swarthy, sweaty, drunk ne'er do wells and each ride is basically a near death experience. So anyway, here is my bike, which I've christened Al Green, or technically the Reverend Al Green.

It seriously might be a photo finish as to which expires first, my time in Vietnam or this bike. These pics really don't do justice to its sorry state. BTW almost all bicycles here feature the low "step through" crossbar, so I don't want to hear anyone say that I bought a girls' bike.

Ryan got a bike too but it started to fall apart earlier today so he destroyed it.

Also, I cut my hair.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

There's No Place Like Home

Note: I meant to publish this earlier this month, around the time of the election, but never finished it, then got caught up in the joys of the midterm (midterm exam, not midterm election) something I never thought would be as difficult as it is--coming up with jokey incorrect multiple choice answers is fun at first, but I constantly feel like I need to top myself and eventually I'm making references to Krush Groove and Jesse "the Body" Ventura and I know it's time to call it quits for the night.

I can't say that I'm quite satisfied with the reception that the election got here. I think because I was not in the States for those few heady days in the beginning of November, I never experienced the catharsis, the apparently palpable energy, the smiling strangers, the all around good vibe that I've heard so much about. Perhaps since I am not reminded on a daily basis of our president-elect's president-elect-ness (aside from the frequent NY Times news alerts alerting me to every possible Obama admin pick), I still find myself thinking about the election a lot, to this day catch myself forming the "if Obama wins" construction in my head and keeping my hope for victory in check lest my candidate should lose. As if this were mid-October and not mid-November, as if the past three weeks never happened.

I suppose what I'm really getting at is that I was expecting more from the Vietnamese. I came here with that strange contradiction of sentiment that I think a lot of 21st century Americans find themselves having: an inflated sense of self-importance coupled with an almost pathetic (but somehow never quite humble) self-loathing--summed up simply as "my country sucks, but doesn't the rest of the world love watching our every move?" I assumed that any American presidential election would be big news internationally, and that this one in particular--the most heated, closely-watched, protracted election that anyone alive can remember--would be as captivating for the world's 5.7 billion other people as it was for us. But aside from the occasional front page picture I'd catch under unintelligible headlines or the one Obama shirt I've seen in this country--hanging in a T-shirt shop in the District One tourist area, between "Good Morning Vietnam" and Tiger Beer shirts--Obama and this election have been conspicuously absent from Vietnam's collective consciousness.

When pressed, my students have shown at least a knowledge of, if not quite an interest in, the media circus that we call representative democracy; yes, we know there's an election coming up; yes, we know who Obama is (and of course they know McCain, this is Vietnam after all); yes, we know Obama won and why that's important. But that's about it: a deadpan, emotionless repetition of facts, as if this were about as interesting and relevant to today as my subsequent lecture on the Missouri Compromise.

I didn't know how to interpret this at first. Is it apathy? Clearly, they have some idea what's going on. Would an average American be able to name 3 foreign heads of state, let alone tell you who any foreign head of state candidates are? Apathy implies a belief in the possibility (and perhaps even the moral necessity) of change combined with a disinterest or lack of concern with effecting that change. In order to be apathetic, one must at least live in a society where change is perceived as possible or healthy. Otherwise, "apathy" is just the status quo.
Upon questioning my students further, it became clear that they hold the workings of their own political process in the same disinterested regard that they hold ours; they know the facts, but they don't bother with getting excited about any of it or fooling themselves into thinking that they can make a difference.

It is easy for me to forget that for all the political upheaval here over the past 150 years, this is a very old nation. This is a nation that has never had a truly representative government, and only began talking about the pretense of one half a century ago. There's no reason for anyone here to believe that a normal government is created by, for, or of the people and more importantly, there's no reason to believe it should be. In places like this, regimes come and go like the (rainy) seasons, and yet day to day life changes very little. So why get involved? The government is just another business to these people--sometimes cruel and definitely corrupt, providing a good career for some, but not worth the effort of emotional investment. Caring about third world politics just sets you up for heartbreak, it seems.

As Americans, we believe that the guy living in that big white house actually does make a difference, but we might be alone in that belief. With each new election cycle we whip ourselves into a frenzy over the minute differences in background, hairstyle, and "positions on the issues" of the candidates, as if this has any bearing on the success or failure of our country or our own happiness. We claim to weigh the pros and cons of these people in some sort of elaborate mental tabulature, but in the end we usually just go with whoever makes us feel better.

In places like this, they don't even do that. Sure, voter turnouts are always 98% but there's never any uncertainty as to who will "win" the election. Some would say the same thing is basically true of America, that the candidates we have to choose from are so similar that the notion of political debate and choice is but an illusion, that nothing ever really changes anyway regardless of who the leader of the free world is. There is something appealing about that idea, something attractively cynical and certainly easy to believe. But no one would argue that every country has room for improvement (yes, even Vietnam). The people here, the government in particular, seem to think that the best route to change is not political reform but a wholehearted embrace of the free market. And there might be some truth to this, given the general lack of interest in politics. But our American belief in the possibility of change, as naive as it may seem, has had its successes: We've gone from being a colonial backwater to the most politically and culturally dominant nation in the history of the world in under 300 years. We've gone from slavery to a black president in half that time. There's something foolish and childlike in our unwavering devotion to the democratic cause (and it can be downright disastrous to try to force it on others, as we have seen here and countless other places around the globe). But there is also something good and healthy and right about the return to "optimism" that Reagan appealed to, the "yes we can" enthusiasm that Obama embodies.

That's all for now. Back to midterm land...

Next time: Why I am the Barack Obama of the teaching profession.

Friday, October 24, 2008

School Deez

Before coming here I had only the vaguest of notions about what schools in Vietnam would be like. Vietnam is in Asia, right? Back in the states the Asian kids were always the smart ones, or at least the booksmart ones, the ones who took five AP classes and violin lessons, and worked at their parents' restaurant and still had time to play lots of weird video games that won't come out in the U.S. for another four years. If this is what Asian-Americans are like, imagine what their overseas cousins—whose parents are presumably even more conservative, more strict, more ancestor-worshiping—must be like. I had visions of an educational Easy Street, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for teachers, a place where the students are diligent, independent, and respectful, a classroom full of self-motivated problem-solvers and critical thinkers; where everyone is always quiet and in their seats when class begins (somehow I imagined the old football coach’s “if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late…” thing would have some major currency here), give the teacher their undivided attention during lectures and then will jump out of their seats to answer a question before their fellow students can.

Maybe I'm thinking of Japan.

The students in here, on the other hand, like to talk in class, or at least they do until I ask them a question. Then they are all of a sudden at a loss for words. Except for the kid in the back bent over behind his desk where he thinks I can't see him talking on his cellphone. Oh yeah, and the other pair of kids back there who talk the whole period because apparently the other four periods of the day they have class together, not to mention the time in between class and after school isn't enough bro time, and they're clearly engaged in the most important conversation of their lives. They probably would stop talking, so as not to call attention to themselves, but they don't even realize that I asked a question because they were too engrossed in gossiping, or making fun of me, or whatever it is they're doing.

I've never been so tempted so often to tell a large group of people to shut up.

Really, though, the worst thing about it is--well, there's a couple worst things about it. For one, most of the in class chit-chat is conducted in hushed Vietnamese, making it almost always impossible for me to discern whether they are legitimately discussing the material, helping each other define words--something which is distracting, but probably doing more good than harm--or just shooting the shit. My lectures tend to involve lots of unfamiliar words, the learning of which is no doubt especially difficult for people whose native vocabulary is entirely monosyllabic. So I feel like I shouldn't stop them from engaging in discussion of the material, given that they can probably explain to each other the meaning of a word better than I can to them. The problem is, I can't tell the difference between this and good old talking in class, so I just assume the worst 90% of the time, for lack of a better way to deal with it. The other thing that sucks about it is that even the good kids, the ones who come to class on time, sit up front, and know all the answers, even they talk when they should be listening. Occasionally then, they find themselves on the receiving end of my weary "ssshh"s when it's 20 minutes to go in class and I'm hoarse from trying to talk over a constant, hushed storm of unrounded short vowels and rising-tone triphthongs (are you reading this, Ryan B?).

Maybe I need to get on the cultural relativism tip and just accept that this is something that's not going to change and not get too bent out of shape about it. This is a weird place, after all, etiquette-wise; the expulsion of all types of bodily fluids on the street seems to be quite acceptable and slurping your noodles is a sign of great appreciation.

Either that, or I just need to learn Vietnamese.

Right, like that'll happen.