An American Fourth of July -- in Thailand
I love my new life in paradise: Bangkok, Thailand. Now, I finally get to do life's little pleasures -- those things I always wanted to do, but was just too busy working to do. These days, I regularly write while seated on a blanket under a shady tree, next to a lake in a beautiful, well-manicured park.
Flowers are in bloom and Thai children are playing and laughing. Since the weather here is always warm, I exercise daily, usually in the athletic park near my home -- jogging on the 2-km track around a big lake, sometimes cycling on its bike path, other times canoeing or rowing.
Oh, and then comes the best part: walking home, cooling down, and stopping at one of the many roadside food stands. Nothing tastes better than sucking down coconut juice from a cold coconut, a slice of fresh watermelon, or a strawberry-flavored snow cone. And each only costs 30 cents!! Yes, some things really do get better with age, but it wasn't always like this.
After 30 years of owning a business in America, working long hours on weekdays and weekends, I finally started thinking about my freedom. What really brought this thinking to a head was when I fired a manager. After firing her, I asked a simple question: "What are you going to do for work now?"
Her reply blew me away. She said, and I quote: "I am going to the beach and watch the sunset. I'll worry about work tomorrow." Little did I know then that this statement would change my life forever.
Now, I was working her shift that night while she was out on the beach-relaxing! After I thought about it that night, I began to feel like a prisoner, instead of a successful businessman.
Wow, what a realization -- slavery is still legal in America, just be a business owner! At this point, I began thinking about how to escape. With the economy in the dumps, how could I sell my business?
Thanks to some creative planning, my son Brian and loyal longtime manager Rebecca took over management of the business. Presto, now I was finally able to pursue freedom and to decide what to do with the rest of my life.
Tired of cold weather and having previously visited and loved Bangkok, I decided to move to the "Land of Smiles." So, off to Bangkok I tramped, bearing one suitcase, one backpack and my laptop computer, leaving 60 years' worth of worldly "things" behind.
I wanted freedom and change, and I got it! Thailand is a country where cars are driven on the left side of the road and where at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily the hymn of allegiance to the King is played on television, radio, and in all parks and schools.
During this playing, everyone stops what he or she is doing and stands still. As foreign languages go, Thai is even more foreign than most, for it uses an entirely different alphabet and is tonal in nature. Typically, there are five possible tones to any word.
Each tone changes the meaning of a word. As an example, the word "mai" can mean "new", "not", "silk", "fine", or it can be used to convert a statement into a yes-or-no question. I have pronounced words wrong, and the Thais have looked at me wanting to say: "What you are saying?" I have gone from being highly literate and fluent to being illiterate!
The good news is that Thai foods are world-renowned. Their cuisine relies heavily on seafood, coconuts, peppers, herbs, and vegetables, and they are a true delight to the palette. And the best part is that Thai food is very cheap. I can eat lunch for less than $1, including a drink!!
Realizing that Thailand is very "foreign" and that I have left the safety of the motherland and the comforts and familiarity of home, it still remains exciting and challenging to me... to experience the other side of midnight, to be free, and to be in Thailand!
At times, living in Bangkok feels like I am in the land that time forgot. It is a place where tourists are able to feed elephants on the sidewalks, where foods are often served "pet maak maak" (very hot, containing small red and green peppers), where almost everyone wears sandals and has black hair and dark eyes, where motorbikes and tuk tuks (a cross between a covered small pickup truck with seats and a motorbike) serve as taxis, where a tribute to the King is played on every movie screen in every cinema before every feature to a standing audience -- yes, definitely not America.
AND I love these differences, for they add challenge, learning, and excitement to my life. There is nothing boring about living in Thailand!
However, we have a saying in America: "Watch what you wish for; you might just get it." Well, I did. After a little while of getting my freedom and having a change of pace, I found myself missing certain familiar and fun activities from my past life.
I was missing some of the simplest of things: hearing American English with no accent (since English is becoming the universal language, it is spoken by all foreigners in Bangkok), walking down the street and actually being able to read the signs, being able to talk 100 miles per hour without stopping and explaining every other word, being able to use idioms and slang when speaking English to a foreigner, going into a restaurant, actually finding a menu in English, and ordering a hot dog or apple pie.
After only three months in Bangkok, I was missing these familiar things and more. Fortunately, the 4th of July was fast approaching. The idea that maybe a 4th of July celebration was happening in Bangkok got me excited. Thank goodness for the internet and Google.
I found the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand sponsoring a 4th of July Independence Day picnic at the American School of Bangkok. I was delighted. The event sounded like just what I needed. I was so excited, in fact, that I volunteered to help the Chamber with this event.
So now I was set, and the excitement was building -- I sensed an opportunity to rediscover a bit of Americana, a whole lot of English, and some great American foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue, and apple pie.
The big day this year was on a sunny Saturday. Being so eager, I arrived when the gates opened to scope out the event and meet some English-speaking Americans. The event was well-organized, on time, and efficiently planned with lots of fun activities, American foods, and all kinds of beer.
Many attendees wore red, white, and blue outfits; smiles were abundant; conversation was lively; flags were flying, and the band was playing American rock & roll favorites like "Proud Mary," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Born To Be Wild."
While fulfilling my volunteer duties of selling tickets at the gate, I stamped hands and handed out miniature American flags. I personally met about 700 people congregating to share this special day.
All told, there probably were 2,500 partiers of whom maybe 1,500 were Americans, and the remainder were Thais, usually girlfriends or wives of American men. Even I brought my Thai girlfriend, Toey.
It was fun introducing her to my world. She was surprised at how informal, open, and interactive everyone was, for Thais are a rather shy, reserved people when meeting strangers.
Many families were also in attendance. Some were solely American, but many included Thai-American children. Without a doubt, we Americans waste no time getting around and infiltrating a culture!
Food booths were lined up from various American restaurants doing business in the Bangkok area -- like Bourbon Street, Roadhouse Barbecue, Sunrise Tacos, and Coyotes -- serving their specialties of Cajun cuisine, barbecue, and Mexican foods, respectively.
Then there were the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), Special Forces Association, and American Women's Club serving great hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie. Oh, and not to forget, Dairy Queen was serving FREE vanilla ice cream. There was even a chili cook-off with restaurants competing for bragging rights of "Best Chili in Bangkok".
Of course, there was a raffle with all sorts of prizes, and for the children, there were face painting, a dunk booth, jungle gyms, balloons, and more. Naturally, I had a craving for hot dogs, hamburgers, and apple pie a la mode -- and I got it all satisfied in one afternoon.
Let's not forget the real reason for the party was to celebrate our Independence Day. A military band played the National Anthem, and the VFW raised our flag. A full-size cardboard standee of President Obama, near the entrance, was a big hit.
I saw many people posing next to the President and taking pictures. Our National Anthem was sung by a Thai lady with such clarity and feeling that I was truly moved.
The master of ceremonies, an American, was dressed just like Uncle Sam. This was just like being in America, celebrating the 4th at a good old cookout. Yes, yes, yes...great American music, American food, and lots of American English were being dished up!
When it was finally over, at around 7:30 p.m., the sun was setting in Bangkok and continental America was just waking to the 4th. In New York City, it was 8:30 a.m. and in California 5:30 a.m.
Toey and I departed the American School of Bangkok to re-enter the other world -- back to her world, back to the reality of being just another farang (a term referring to people of European descent), back to being illiterate, but with a huge smile on my face, a stomach full of American foods, some new American friends, and a feeling of being a little less isolated in a far-off land.
Southeast Asia ranks among the top world destinations for alternative trave – that is, travel that teaches, travel that challenges, travel that rewards adventurous souls in ways vegetating on a beach never will.
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