musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘religion’

Hillary Clinton’s Reading Choices

Hillary Clinton has been back in the news lately, thanks to the backlash about the outrageously high fees that she commands for speaking engagements, the publication of her new book, and a few choice comments she made about current US foreign policy.

HiIlary Rodham Clinton

About two months ago there was a short interview with Clinton in the New York Times, one that focused on books that she enjoys reading. This book interview column is a regular feature in the New York Times and I always find it fascinating to find out what various authors like to read when they are not writing, what they read when they were growing up, or in some cases the classic books that they admit to not having read yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from the column that featured Clinton:

Who are your favorite contemporary writers? Are there any writers whose books you automatically read when they come out?

“I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carre, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, and Jacqueline Winspear.”

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”


Well, she had me pleasantly surprised there for a while, picking authors that I also enjoy reading such as Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Alexander McCall Smith. But then she blew it with the lame Bible pick. I’m not sure if that was an “astute political choice” or truly a sincere personal pick, but either way it dismisses her in my mind as yet another religious wacko.

I’ve made these comments in past posts, but my feelings remain the same if not stronger: religion has no place in politics. If you are telling me that the Bible influences your way of thinking and how you make decisions, then I sure as hell (or should I capitalize that as a proper place name?) don’t want you holding elective office and making laws that affect my life.

In the United States a big deal was made about fifty years ago when John F. Kennedy was elected president, making him the first Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office. In the last US presidential election the fact that Mitt Romney was the first Mormon to run for office was also a source of curiosity. Personally, I’m waiting for the first atheist to run for office, someone who has the intelligence and fortitude to declare that they are not a superstitious half-wit who belongs to an organized religion. Please, just give me one such honest person.

I get so sick of seeing the same types of people elected to office in the USA. Most are career politicians with backgrounds in law, or perhaps they have some business experience. But do we really want more lawyers and MBA types running our government? Why don’t we elect scientists, teachers, economists, or people that actually have the brains and experience to effect change and make our lives better? Enough with these money-raising talking haircuts and dangerous religious fundamentalists; it’s time for real change. And even though she would be the first female president if elected, an insider like Hillary Clinton — especially one that apparently holds diehard religious beliefs — does not represent change for the better.

Dashing Through the Weirdness

I breathe a sigh of relief tonight, for I have managed to work another Christmas Day in my bookshop without resorting to violence or verbally haranguing some clueless nimrod for wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Why is it that so many people in Thailand — both Thais and foreigners — assume that all Westerners gleefully celebrate Christmas? I’m not a Christian and I don’t celebrate Christmas, yet even living in Thailand it’s almost impossible to avoid the holiday weirdness.

 All of the shopping centers and department stores in Bangkok have been flaunting their horrific Christmas decorations since late October. If that’s not bad enough, many of these places also delight in playing Christmas music. It’s also impossible to avoid gaudy holiday decorations and spindly little trees in restaurants, banks, and supermarkets all around town. My apartment complex, however, didn’t put up a tree this year. I wonder if they are still upset that I set fire to last year’s tree.


Is there some regulation that all employees in these places must wear Santa Claus hats? Really, it’s beyond ridiculous. This is Thailand, the welcoming kingdom of peaceful Buddhists and sexy go-go dancers. Why all the Christmas stuff? Even in the hospital where my friend is being treated they have Christmas decorations on every floor. Last time I checked, the population of Thailand was comprised of about 95% Buddhists, and most of the rest are Muslim, so what’s with all this Christian crap?

As you would guess, it has nothing to do with religion and all to do with being festive, or just being silly, and no country in the world does silliness better than Thailand. In fact, there are universities in Thailand that offer advanced courses in silliness. It’s that much of an art form. So when there is a chance to dress up, decorate, and do some shopping, hell, the Thais are going to go wild! And they do. I almost dropped by Foodland tonight to pick up a few things, but the thought of having to face a gauntlet of smiling Santa Claus hat-wearing cashiers wishing me a “May-ree Crit-mat!” was too much to deal with, so I walked straight home.

The Christmas overkill is not unique to Thailand. Go to any Asian country (well, maybe not North Korea) and you’ll see similar scenes of decorated malls and grinning people wearing Santa hats. Even in Malaysia, which is mostly Muslim, they aren’t shy about trotting out the Christmas decorations in full force. And when I was in Mandalay last month I saw several shops selling Christmas trees and other Santa crap. Man, you just can’t escape this nonsense. But hey, I guess it all has to do with marketing, right?


The main problem, though, is that it’s a major Christian holiday, and that religious creepiness is always rearing its ugly head. Just last week some nutjob Christian — looking and sounding like an alcoholic Swede — wandered into my bookshop and started passing out those odious religious tracts. These fliers, though, were written in Thai, no doubt urging the recipient to repent and accept Jesus as their savior. I told this creep to get the hell out of my shop. He made some remark about “Jesus is coming soon,” so I retorted: “Well, it’s sure taking him a long time, isn’t it? What’s he been doing, masturbating to photos of Lady Gaga? No, wait a minute, didn’t I read that the Astros signed him to play shortstop next year? Or maybe that was another Jesus. I always get those Hispanic guys mixed up.” He kept babbling more Jesus voodoo, and I just smirked and added “take your fantasies somewhere else, dude, we don’t want your kind around here!”

My Cambodian friend Chiet was in the shop at the time, and he stared at the paper the creepy Christian had given him and asked me what it was. “It’s a new brand of toilet paper,” I told him. “But it’s a bit on the rough side, so be careful if you use it.”


Birds in the Room, Birds in the Head

You can’t help but wake up when it sounds like your roof is falling in. Well, the sound wasn’t quite that loud, but it DID sound like something very heavy hadn’t fallen through the ceiling of my apartment one morning last month. It was about seven in the morning and as I lay in bed, I struggled to open my eyes to find out what had happened. It didn’t take me long to see the cause of the noise: a bird was flying around my apartment.

First question: how did this bird get inside? I don’t keep any pet birds, so it wasn’t like something had sneaked out of its cage and was taking a joy ride. A quick investigation revealed the entry point where the bird burglar had broken in; a fairly large rip in a screen window in my bedroom. The second question: how was I going to get this bird out? I live in a corner apartment and have large sliding windows in both rooms, so I went and opened all those windows as wide as they could go, and waited for Mr. Bird to realize he had an exit plan. Thankfully, his instincts were quick and accurate and he soon flew away. What a way to start the morning!


I’m not sure if this bird incident inspired me in the choice of new book to read, but a couple of weeks later I picked up Pigeon English, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011 and garnered all sorts of rave reviews in the process. Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestselling Room, said: “This boy’s love letter to the world made me laugh and tremble all the way through.” Another author, Clare Morrall, called it “a powerful and impressive novel …. utterly convincing and deeply moving.” I would agree with those comments. The novel is funny and disturbing, sad and joyous. The main character is Harrison Opoku, known as Harri, an 11-year old boy who has recently moved from Ghana to London with his mother and older sister. The novel, narrated by Harri, details his acclimation to a foreign country, dealing with bullies and violence at school, discovering girls, and trying to play detective to find out who killed one of his young classmates.

Kelman’s use of dialogue, particularly teenage slang, is brilliant. Some of the slang is baffling at first, but once you get accustomed to it all, you find it mesmerizing. All these things aside, there is a disturbing religious thread that runs through the story. The “pigeon” in the title is an actual bird that Harri befriends. Unlike the bird that flew into my place, Harri is able to “communicate” with his bird, or at least come to some sort of understanding and develop a relationship. This pigeon, however, ends up being some sort of metaphor for God, the bird even promising Harri that “Everything’s going to be alright.”

For me, such simplistic reassurances and promises of an afterlife only ruin what could have been a truly great novel. As it stands, this is still a funny and gripping read. There are passages in the book that may bring tears to your eyes, and certainly parts that will make you laugh out loud. It’s just a shame that damn pigeon had to ruin the vibe.

Sweet Sixteen

I hadn’t circled the date on my calendar — and actually I can’t remember the exact date — but this week marked the 16th anniversary of my move from the United States to Thailand. Holy jumping sassafras! To say that the time has flown by would be a definite understatement. But even after sixteen years, and a few bumps along the route, I wake up each morning very thankful, and very happy, that I am able to live and work in a magical, tolerant country. This still feels like paradise.


Actually, I haven’t spent the entire 16 years in Bangkok. I moved to Cambodia in 2002 to open a bookshop in Siem Reap. I stayed there for nearly two full years before I felt the tug of Thailand and moved back to Bangkok … to open another bookshop. What’s next? I like challenges and new places, so maybe a bookshop in Mandalay? Hmm. I’d be lying if I said that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. But reality screams back, telling me that that’s not going to happen: No way, dude! You’re better off staying in Bangkok. At least for now.


I’ve met many other Westerners who have relocated to Thailand. Some of them seemingly had no choice in the matter, having been sent here by their company for work. But many others, like me, moved to Thailand because they became disenchanted with their native country and felt that life in Thailand offered something different and exciting. In other words: something better. Some expats adapt and thrive here in Thailand, but others are bothered by the heat and chaos and can’t ever grasp the differences in culture and language. Still others find that they miss something — or someone — back in their homeland and end up moving back relatively quickly.


Me, I’m sticking it out and staying put here in this comfortably weird corner of Southeast Asia. I constantly follow news reports and get e-mails from friends back in the US, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what life is like back there. And it scares the hell out of me. Why would I want to go back to that sizzling pu-pu platter of insanity? If anything, a high percentage of Americans have become more intolerant, destructive, angry, and ignorant over the past few years. Looking at the field of pathetic Republican candidates running for president this year is frightening evidence of this downward spiral. How can so many members of the voting public support religious maniacs who spew lies and distortions? One candidate, Rick Santorum, appears to have a particularly bizarre obsession with sex, babbling on and on about what he defines as family values. But he’s a Catholic, those masters of guilt and hypocrisy, so his having such Victorian attitudes toward sex shouldn’t come as a shock. What is shocking, though, is that he has commanded so much support from the American voting public thus far. Then again, considering the warped “morals” of the religious right, Santorum’s views must be in tune with those of their own.


Charles M. Blow wrote an outstanding piece about Santorum’s sexual fixation (frustration?) in the New York Times last week. He used many excerpts from speeches that Santorum has given on the campaign trail to showcase that obsession. Here is one such example:


Santorum: “It comes down to sex. That’s what it’s all about. It comes down to freedom, and it comes down to sex. If you have anything to do with any of the sexual issues, and if you are on the wrong side of being able to do all of the sexual freedoms you want, you are a bad guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom in an area that’s the most central to me.”


I’m inspired to borrow a portion of Santorum’s rant, change a few words, and throw it back at him:

If you have anything to do with religious issues, and if you are allowed all of the religious freedoms you want, you are a dangerous guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom.


And these zealots ARE a very dangerous bunch. I think that by embracing religion — specifically Christianity — to such an extreme extent, America has lost its way to the highway and is headed for the ditch. A staggeringly high percentage of Americans think it’s more normal to pray about matters than to think them through logically. But of course logic or intelligence never enters into their thought process. They are more alarmed about premarital sex and gay marriage than the deteriorating environment or the poor quality of public education. Santorum’s mindset, and that of his religious supporters, vividly illustrates what turns me off about America, what scares me about America, and why I have zero desire to go back there.


Thailand certainly has its share of problems too, and more than a few idiot politicians are running loose. But at least they don’t use religion to blind the masses. In recent years, Thailand has suffered from floods, a military coup, Red Shirt protests, and Yellow Shirt protests. But I’d still much rather live here in this imperfect Asian kingdom than back in the misnamed land of liberty, freedom, and justice for all. From now on I think I’ll just call it the United States of Religious Loonies.

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