Bless This House
I have witnessed these invasions before. It is 10 a.m.; I am still in bed; but the house is filled with multiple foreign voices and the smell of food. "Thousand of people are here!" insists my Thai girlfriend, long awake. This is intended to persuade me to get out of bed; it does the opposite. The voices downstairs are strident, female; I recall that the Thais say that when the Chinese speak in a tone of voice normal for them it sounds like they are arguing. This I can verify, having flown via Taiwan.
The reason for all this commotion is that today the Buddhist clergy will bless our house, standard practice for any house newly built or purchased. Sure enough, the monk arrives and sits down in my living room. Twenty or so Thais wai and repeat the Pali words that the monk and what seems to be a plainclothes, undercover monk are chanting.
A long white string, known as a sai sin, has been strung throughout and outside the house. The string looks like some intricate animal trap. It circles around a Buddha statue, burning candles, vases of flowers. It passes through the monk's oblong prayer book, goes upstairs into my office, and appears on our patio. Ostensibly the string is a conduit of spiritual energy.
The only foreigner, I get into trouble early. Outside, on a plant pot, is a plate of food, which I vaguely recognize as an offering to some spirit. Looking for a place to deposit a cigarette butt, I move the plate to a nearby table and put my butt in the pot. Big no-no. The silly farang is laughed at; the Thais are politely scandalized. I consider saying that a spirit could figure out where his marvelous repast has gone, but I have learned not to argue about superstitions.
The chanting proceeds, speeds up. The Thais are now chattering and fussing about the copious food on display. I am watching one of the candles, afraid that it will ignite the nearby flowers. All too often these things happen. Now the monk is throwing water and flower petals on us. We'll have cleaning to do.
The monks don't do this for free. A gift of 100 baht is mentioned. Soon the ante is upped to 300.
Now the plainclothes monk is speaking. I hear my name, spoken in the Thai way: Cham-PEE-un, high or falling tone on the PEE. The Thais giggle about the funny name. Glasses filled with water have appeared; next to them, empty glasses. I am ordered to wai and repeat words of which I understand perhaps thirty percent: I catch pancha sila and bhagava, respectively the five rules of good behavior, and God. The words will keep the spirits at bay and - the truth comes out! - bring me fortune; or, as my girlfriend puts it: MONEY. MONEY. And with all due respect to Buddhism, that's what much of this and Buddhism as practiced is about.
The water is poured from the full to the empty glass. I have heard my name spoken several times now. The chanting resumes. The inevitable child cries, ignorant of protocol. Now the water is poured outside the house, and the employees of my girlfriend's mother clean up the floor and wheel out the food. I would be unable to recount all the times these girls have been enlisted to aid my quasi-family. One of them, Oi, has braces on her buckteeth. Another is a strikingly beautiful and diffident Burmese, and probably for that reason an illegal laborer, and thus willing to clean the whole of my house for 200 baht. In the real world, injustice reigns.
More friends arrive. The Canadian and his Thai girlfriend, who I believe is recovering from leukemia. I am handed a small patch of cloth covered with writing in Lanna script, which resembles Burmese. The cloth also depicts some bird and the words "Wat Forn Soy", the name of the temple behind this morning's entertainment. The cloth is for my bedroom. A stray dog arrives, peers enviously through the door at the food, runs away. I hear the words aroy mahk -- very tasty - the secular counterpart of the chanting now concluded. Even the monk is chowing down: a reminder that he lives on the largesse of the lay people, and that his like has done so for millennia. Myself, I eat some moo ping (grilled pork with coriander on a stick) and some concoction of rice, sesame, and an unidentified white cream.
By noon it is proving to be one of those perfect Saturday mornings in Chiang Mai. Blue sky, singing birds, a bit of crispness in the warm winter air. But the banal note is soon struck: there is trash to be taken out; I eye the bag with loathing.
Now I am informed that the religious ceremonies are not yet over. We return inside. Some perfunctory chanting, during which the dog returns, snooping. The monk, who is now revealed to be inhumanly thin, says something about the dog. A good omen, perhaps. The monk and his entourage depart, and once again I forget to wai the appropriate people at the appropriate times. Stern, unnecessary lecture from the girlfriend; horror at the barbarity of me and my kind.
I venture upstairs, ducking under the string. It looks like cobwebs in a haunted house. Dutifully, I deliver the red patch to the bedroom. Back downstairs, it's evidently clean-up time; the last of the food is being distributed, put into little plastic bags, deftly tied. I think Thais are born with the ability to deftly tie little plastic bags.
Looking about, I realize once again that women run Thailand, notwithstanding its male-dominated government and clergy. Traditionally women are compared to the hind legs of an elephant - necessary but second-place. This seems criminally inaccurate to me. The few men here are just standing around, as if awaiting instructions. The Burmese girl zooms by, trying to keep her head below the level of those of us sitting. She knows her place in the pecking order, sadly.
"Eat eat eat. Talk talk talk," says the girl with leukemia. By this she implies, rightly, that this is the substance of Thai social gatherings.
The string, I am told, must stay for three days. A large Thai woman fondling a puppy repeatedly asks the puppy if it is a vegetarian. Thais, I realized recently, believe like good Hindus that all things, including representations of animals, have souls. Even stuffed animals and cartoons, and vegetarian dogs.
The party has moved outside. Puppies are being handed back and forth, but the word pa is suddenly on everybody's lips. Pa is roughly equivalent to "let's go" but Thais will often start saying it long before they actually leave. It's a way of marshalling the troops, but because it does not always have this immediate effect, it's also just talking for the sake of talking.
A beggar arrives. He begs from a few Thais; they snub him. Then he heads for me, the foreigner, presumed rich. I try to ignore him but he grabs my leg. Supplication or massage? No time to tell: girlfriend's mom rushes out, says, "No, no, no" and sternly tells beggar to go to the temple. He obeys. The fun continues.
Girlfriend appears carrying a bowl containing water and assorted plant material. Put your hand in it, she says, and then sprinkle it on your head "for auspicious" (she always misuses the word.) But it's dirty, I protest half-seriously. This draws jeers. So I do the deed, trying to minimize the amount of plant material to be transferred to my head.
Girlfriend's mom, who is Chinese, is getting impatient. She wants to work. Very Chinese. Well, this does it. The last of the vast host piles into a car and heads off - to the mall. My now blessed house is now empty but for me.
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