On the Occasion of Traveling to Thailand:

A TravelBlogue


Prologue. The evening of 8 June.

"Do you know any Billy Joel?"

I said, when asked by the singer in the lobby of my hotel if I had any requests. The elegant young Thai woman responded by singing Just the Way You Are.

"Was I really in Bangkok?" I wondered to myself, beginning my travel reminiscences. This surely was not a typical American hotel lobby – for the seating area was ensquared by four large, potted trees, which housed a dozen or so small songbirds and the occasional mosquito. Attendants quietly opened doors for departing adventurers, hosts and hostesses graciously seated guests at tables, porters distractedly delivered luggage to rooms – but of course these might happen anywhere.

But what would not have happened anywhere: Racha, the accompanist, comes to sit next to me at a break. He is telling me a personal story about having recently heard music on a ranat ek, a Thai percussion instrument similar to a marimba with the white keys of a piano, only. This conversation is made easy as I have just searched for an article on Thai music, which prominently featured an old picture of a ranat ek.

We had struck up a short acquaintance earlier. For a few moments, I was the solitary listener of his delicate improvisations on show tune themes – short stacks of fake books were sprinkled around the baby grand piano near the hotel cafe. He asked me to play, but I need something more than a melody line and chord suggestions. One of his books had a copy of the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and despite some months of little practice, I was able to pass as a not incompetent pianist. Enough that Racha and I could discuss a little music.

On his break, he tells me about his work teaching piano during the day and playing at the hotel at night: early evening at the cafe, later evening in the lobby. We chat amiably until the break is over.

It seems that I have already made a friend in Thailand.

Ready, set, go! 6 June.

He might as well have been from another country.

My international adventure began when Raed knocked on my door on a sultry Monday afternoon not so long ago. The airport limo had arrived.

Raed was from Jerusalem, and had been in the US for nine years. We had an unusual intercultural exchange on the way to the airport, comparing experiences of what it is like to be different – regardless of which accident that difference is a result of: the geography of one's birth or the particulars of one's sexual orientation. Raed's observation: people in America do not respect each other. I did ask him why he didn't move back. It seems that tolerating the American incapacity for relationship is preferable to the ravages of war and economic uncertainty.

The woman from Australia two seats over was a delight. Talking through the young soon-to-be-military youth – young enough to be her grandson – was a bit awkward, so we kept the conversation brief. I did offer to move so that he might be spared our speaking across him – but he declined, attempted to sleep, and then pulled out a small Bible from his hip pocket and began reading. He might as well have been from another country.

So that was the flight to LA. (Aside from reading P. G. Wodehouse on the Kindle acquired especially for the trip.) Not much to say about LAX except a conversation with an old friend, listening to the chant of Buddhist monks en route to Thailand, and a reprise with the Australian woman. It turns out we are both rather fond of Alexander McCall Smith – although she prefers The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, while I am partial to Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

There is not much to say about the seventeen-hour flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok except that it was, well, rather long.

Flashback. 9 December 2010.

"May I say on behalf of IPST that we would be pleased for the opportunity of welcoming you to Thailand next year."

Serendipity. Fate. Divine intervention. Call it what you will: the chance meeting of myself and Dr. David Workman as we both leave IMSA one balmy fall afternoon.

I had heard sometime earlier from colleagues that after Dr. Workman retired, he established a relationship with Thai educators, bringing inquiry-based methods of teaching physics to Thailand. So I casually remarked, "Well, if there is any interest in someone who can talk about mathematics, let me know."

Just before his October trip to Thailand, David stops by my office. He is on his way soon, and, well, what did I have in mind when it came to inquiry-based methods of teaching mathematics? We shared a few ideas, seeds were planted.

I had hardly imagined the seeds would sprout so quickly! It was on 9 December that I received the invitation from the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology. It was both honor and acknowledgment: an honor that the Ministry of Education in Thailand should see fit to invite me to deliver workshops to Thai teachers, and acknowledgment for the hard work required of an eighteen-year teaching career. This was the first invitation of its kind I had ever received: a three-week visit to Thailand with expenses paid by their Ministry of Education.

This was truly an amazing opportunity, and after talking with David Workman about the adventure, I readily accepted. Now began the preparations!

There were Thai materials to read, proposals to be written, workshops to be designed. A Thai student (Thanks, Thiti!) helped with some translation, which was invaluable. Perhaps most fun was creating a web page for the trip – not an easy task, but I was very happy with the result. Conversations with a colleague (Thanks, Sandy!) helped me to approach the visit from an appropriate perspective.

Importantly: thanks to my Advanced Problem Solving and BC Calculus I classes. Your enthusiasm for writing Original Problems allowed me to incorporate ideas into my planning which otherwise would simply not have been possible.

Bangkok! 8 June.

No, it did not taste like chicken.

Mercifully, waiting for my luggage took longer than both Immigration and Customs combined. I had logged twenty-eight hours of travel time so far.

Purple and pink everywhere! These, too, were the signature colors of Thai Airways. I minded not at all.

Som (from the IPST) was waiting for me at the Meeting Place at Suvarnabhumi Airport. I breathed an inward sigh of relief when I saw the sign for "Dr. Vince Matsko" – the uncertainty had ended. I had endured the trip, exhausted, not really being able to sleep on the plane. I could begin to relax.

The traffic didn't bother me at all. I had waited so long already; I knew the waiting now would be short in comparison.

I am grateful to Som for being cheerful and friendly so early in the morning – my flight arrived close to 6:30, and she was there promptly to greet me. Despite my exhaustion, Som made the conversation back to the hotel pleasant and informative.

A nap, lunch, a walk, and another nap later, it was time for dinner.

Well, I had supposed that I would be eating Thai food solidly for three weeks. But realizing that I was in the heart of Asia, I thought to myself: surely the Chinese restaurant in the hotel should be a step above what I could find in the suburbs of Chicago!

I must admit I had some reservations. As I was seated, I noticed the exquisitely laid tables, each with a small silver spoon rest (for the serving spoon) which doubled as a rest for chopsticks – which in this case were smooth porcelain, and rather heavier than the wooden ones you would ordinarily get in the US.

Now the hotel had over 30 floors – but I was the only one in the restaurant. And not a single customer was seated for the duration of my meal.

But, as it happens, that was of no consequence. I went for the adventure: ostrich with spicy Chinese herbs. It was quite delicious. Served with rice, the pieces of meat were small rounds about three inches in diameter and about a third-inch thick. I was a little surprised to travel halfway around the world only to have the ostrich served over spears of asparagus (but I am quite fond of asparagus).

Getting Acquainted

Breakfast. 9 June.

"I have been used to consider poetry as the FOOD of love," said Darcy.

"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

Having rather neglected an acquaintance with the classics thus far, I took it upon myself to acquire fifty-odd free e-books for my Kindle. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was among the demi-tomes. How could I have known it would be so scathingly hilarious?

And so, having arisen indecently early, I took the lift down to breakfast at something like 6:00 a.m., Austen in tow. I began simply with coffee – surprisingly decent, unpretentious coffee. I embellished the first cup with a splash of milk, but found it unnecessary subsequently. Pleasantly sweet, almost, without a trace of bitterness one just assumes is part and parcel of the usual cup.

Then on to a few tidbits. The square pastry with the circular depression filled with what appeared to be a berry-like jelly was at least honest. So too was the circular item which looked remarkably like a slice of a medium-sized chocolate chip muffin cut into thirds (or perhaps fourths) parallel to its bottom with what must have been an uncommonly sharp knife. Subsequent ingestion proved it to be exactly that. (Honesty is a quality I much appreciate in a pastry.)

But the rectangular morsel with a middle stripe composed of what seemed be a creamy confection topped with a layer of tantalizingly small banana slices – absolute deception. Rather like those too-young chaps who stand tall and lower their voices and fake their identification so that they may enlist (but under false pretenses). It seems they have a kindred spirit in these would-be bananas.

Of course it is entirely likely that the circular slices were not bananas, of any size, at all. But then what possible motive could some renegade fruit have for so willfully looking like a small banana? Were I of a more legalistic nature, I think I should propose legislation banning the impersonation of one fruit by another. Fruits which are not bananas should have the common decency not to look like bananas. (I consumed this bogus pastry in any case, unwilling to succumb to defeat no matter the cost.)

Then on to another drop of coffee or two, followed by the second course. The advertised "fried rice with butter" was aptly named, and not so unusual a breakfast item once given a chance. It was likely the butter that did it. One pauses to wonder if those bits of potato pieces called "hash" (or is it "hashed"?) "browns" might have had their precursor in this Thai dish. Would it not make sense that the kitchen device called a "potato ricer" was invented precisely to emulate such a culinary success? I might suggest it to some researcher of gastronomy as a potentially fruitful exploration.

And then there was the pineapple. An acquaintance who had previously visited the region remarked to me upon the excellence of the fruit, so I hardly expected the pineapple to be, well – crunchy. Not that one broke one's teeth on a quarter-slice of pineapple, of course – but one might (apparently erroneously) expect that a chef capable of turning out a fluffy, buttery fried rice might demonstrate the culinary savvy required to see the necessity of cutting the crunchy bits from the middles of pineapple slices.

Perhaps I expect too much of the world. But if the human race is incapable of living without dishonest pastries and crunchy pineapples, I have grave reservations of its prognosis for the future.

Initial visit to the IPST. 9 June.

Meeting old friends for the first time.

Som was waiting for me as I walked into the hotel lobby at 11:00. The first order of business – lunch!

But not before I met Ms. Chantana. We had corresponded seemingly incessantly over the past few months, arranging various details. Finally to meet! She leads – very competently – the department responsible for taking care of visitors and their travel to and from Thailand. Our meeting was entirely pleasurable.

More Thai food for lunch. Yum! Pad see ewe for the second time in two days. I suppose it would be too much to ask for Thai food each day in the cafeteria at IMSA.

I met many IPST members during lunch in the canteen that afternoon, including the Director of the IPST, Dr. Pornpun. Also present were Ms. Chamaiporn, Dr. Anuchit, Chantana, Tama, and Som. You will get a chance to meet these and many others in the course of the next few weeks.

The IPST really did welcome me very warmly; I already felt that I was among friends.

The afternoon consisted of a (literally!) whirlwind tour of the IPST buildings. Essentially, curriculum development for the entire country is centered in Bangkok; policies are made for all schools in Thailand. This has the natural advantage of making reform easier to implement, although reform is just as difficult to design as it is in the US. Sponsoring visits by Dr. Workman and myself show how serious Thai educators are about bringing new ideas into their curricula.

My trip home was on the Skytrain – Bangkok's above-ground subway. Dr. Anuchit and Tama graciously accompanied me to show me how the system works. It seems that the Skytrain is modelled on the British tube; the maps both in the cars and out really look quite similar to those you'll find in London. The announcement for the various stops also sound the same as what you'd hear on the London tube. And as my hotel and the IPST are on the same line, getting back and forth from the hotel will be quite convenient in the weeks to come.

Maybe Bangkok isn't so foreign after all.

Day 2 at the IPST. 10 June.

The day was about meeting more Thai educators, and getting ready for Monday's presentation. (And pad thai for lunch.)

Conversations that day were surprising. Evidently Thai educators face many of the same issues we face in the US. Students are not performing as well as hoped. Teachers are not paid as well as they should be – so the best students are seeking careers as doctors or engineers. The inertia of teaching the same way that has always been taught is not easy to overcome. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise role that technology should play in mathematics education. Primary school teachers, as they are often anxious about mathematics, convey this anxiety to their young students. Students are too dependent on calculators for simple calculations.

Really, every issue facing us in the US has its mirror in Thailand. I suppose this makes communication easier, since our perspectives are similar.

These problems are notoriously difficult to solve domestically. Will their solution be any easier in Thailand?

Shopping. 11 June.


Yes, shopping.

Fast becoming the savvy Skytrain traveler, I just hopped on at Asok and got off at Chit Lom, where according to all accounts, there were large shopping malls.

No doubt. I found out rather quickly that once you get over how huge they are – and in some cases how elegantly designed – you realize that they are rather the same monuments to consumerism as they are in America.

Not that I didn't buy stuff. Of course (really?) I bought stuff. Isn't that the purpose of going to shopping malls?

OK, so I'll tell you what I bought. A sleek faux leather pencil case, of the swirly greenish variety. Functional – and I could use it, since the once I got in Austria a few summers ago definitely did not do the job. 220 baht.

Next, some Thai music. I allude to the long (seventeen-hour) flight from LAX to Bangkok. While I couldn't really sleep, I tried to doze off by listening to some relaxing CDs – Living with Rose Sirintip (199 baht), and Lost Wings with Kong Karoon (145 baht). Fairly low-key, but definitely with a Thai accent. I look forward to being able to listen to them post-flight.

And, not surprisingly, a book (with two companion CDs): Thai for Beginners (800 baht). I opened it, and see that it will be quite a challenge. I rather expect it to be more like Korean than any western language. But the alphabet is really quite elegant – although with 44 consonants and 32 vowels, well....

Oh, yeah. Two scoops of Haagen Dazs ice cream, one Vanilla Caramel Brownie, and one Cappuccino Truffle. 210 baht. Go figure.

The Reclining Buddha. 12 June.

Som was my tour guide today. Our destination: the Grand Palace, once home to the King of Thailand.

There is no clear separation of religion and culture in Thailand. Significant cultural attractions include temples and stupas (as well as shopping malls). One such temple is home to the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand.

We take off our shoes before entering the temple; this is a common Buddhist practice. Then we simply walk around the Buddha.

It takes some time. The Buddha, plated with gold leaf, is on a platform raised about one meter off the ground. Its head is easily five meters above that – with the feet some 25 or 30 meters from the head. Small shrines are placed at intervals around the Buddha for those wishing to make devotions – or perhaps pose for a picture.

The Buddha is smiling – Som tells me that all the Buddhas in Thailand are smiling. We walk past a woman who is scolding a girl – "Show respect!" It seems there are as many Thais here as tourists; Thais do not need to buy a ticket to visit the Buddha. Only the foreigners.

About 20 or 30 bowls, placed waist high, line one of the walls. A smaller bowl of small coins may be purchased, so that the devotee may drop one in each bowl as they walk past. I wonder how many visitors perform this ritual not because they have any real sense of what it signifies, but rather so they can say they did it. Two haughty young men, their casual dress suggesting wealth, seem to be of the latter category.

Som asks if I would like to walk around the Buddha again, and I do. What a pleasant image this is! Rather than a symbol of a bleeding martyr grotesquely nailed to a wooden cross, here is a relaxed, smiling benefactor wishing happiness to anyone who happens by.

As we leave, we see the two young men again. They are sitting, each using a disposable, wet cloth to thoroughly wipe the soles of their bare feet.

On To Work!

Workshopping. 13–14 June.

Nine hours of workshops over two days....

They began just as many IMSA classes do: students are quiet, they ask few questions, are rather shy – and for some, there is a language barrier.

I had the good fortune to have translators these two days: Dr. Supap (who graduated from USC) on Monday, and Tama, who works at the IPST, on Tuesday. It's somewhat of a challenge to speak in conceptual chunklets – you can't stop after every sentence, or else there is no continuity, but you can't say too much at once, or else it's too hard for the translator to remember all of what you said.

The second day was a lot of fun – the two three-hour sessions centered around pentominoes, quadratic equations involving the floor function, and geometrical dissections. Having everything online helped quite a bit, as I could easily go back and forth between relevant examples.

Once the Thai teachers put scissors to paper and made a set of pentominoes, the excitement began. It was a pleasure to see them so excited – but also as frustrated as IMSA students can be when they can't solve a problem right away. I had them sit in groups just like we do at IMSA, so that they got a taste of how we teach by experiencing it themselves. The group dynamic was fairly similar, as there were about twenty participants.

The morning break included a sweet, Thai iced coffee. Absolute yum.

There was a lot of problem-solving in the morning, and a lot of my circulating around, much as we would do in a typical MI class. Teachers seemed to enjoy the atmosphere – although, unlike an MI class, I couldn't understand their running commentary. I will choose to think good thoughts about their incidental conversations....

Lunch: Thai green curry. I could get used to this....since lunch was set up for us, we didn't need the whole hour. So we started a bit earlier than 1:00, so that we would end early. No one complained.

The afternoon was devoted to some problem solving – and then problem writing. There were many questions about this, as there always are when I have IMSA students do this. But once we got going, any number of interesting conversations ensued. One teacher had the interesting idea to graph the reciprocal of y = a|x – b| + c – and explain what happens when the parameters vary – which he suggested as a result of our discussion of the rational functions unit in MI III. Another asked a combinatorics questions. After working with the floor function, one teacher began exploring similar problems with round(x) instead.

So the room was buzzing with discussion. The conclusion? Many of these teachers will be back for workshops next week. In true IMSA form, I left the afternoon fairly open – no simple answers, no short formula for developing inquiry-based activities.

They left the workshop with some experience of being engaged – we'll see how well things worked next week. For that's when the Thai teachers create activities which they will use in their own classrooms.

Non–Culture. 15 June.

Today was our visit to the Mahidol Wittayanusorn School – the IMSA of Thailand. (The final "l" in Mahdiol is pronounced as an "n," incidentally. A peculiarity of Thai orthography.)

The morning consisted of visiting three classes with students of various ages: grades 10–12. Each class has 24 students; this was, quite literally, modelled on IMSA. As it happens, when Dr. Tongchai, then principal of Mahidol, visited IMSA on one occasion, he was so impressed with Dr. David Workman's class than he invited him to Thailand to discuss inquiry-based learning. It was through Dr. Workman's acquaintance that I got involved with the IPST as the mathematics specialist.

The teachers were very competent – Mahidol has in many ways a more demanding curriculum than IMSA. That comes, however, at the expense of more exploration in the classroom. There isn't time for much in the way of inquiry; we well know that it is far more expedient to simply instruct. Many educators in Thailand are eager for change – but, as might be expected, there are always competing demands. The politics of education.

An enthusiastic discussion with Mahidol mathematics teachers ensued after lunch. Clearly interested in considering a more inquiry-based approach, they are hampered by a system which requires elaborate and detailed lesson plans for each class period. (In one class on a subsequent school visit, a teacher handed me the lesson plan for the day. It was twelve pages long.)

What to do? Alas, no easy answer.

After the discussion, we (that is, Anuchit, Tama, and myself) were accompanied by a teacher to a cultural show at the Rose Garden. We walked past a small group of elephants (legs chained, of course, so they could not wander off).

We entered a large open-air theater. Many venues – even classrooms at many schools – are exposed to the elements. The weather in Thailand is rather forgiving that way. An abundance of ceiling fans makes the environment bearable.

We were entertained by traditional dances, ceremonies, and even a mock Thai kickboxing match. With the occasional bad joke thrown in for the tourists. I guess that's me.

I couldn't help feel a bit sad. It was not at all obvious that the actors were having a good time. The smiles seemed too plastic, the movements too uninspired. I suppose I was seeing a bit of Thai culture. Much like a new Thai acquaintance imagined he was learning about American culture by watching Friends.

Digital cameras and videorecorders abounded. Voyeurism as a means to enculturation.

Perhaps culture is more about how people think than what people do. Certainly thoughts influence actions, and vice versa. Of course I could have had myself digitally photographed patting a domesticated elephant on its head. But I rather think I learned more about Thai culture by talking on the way back to school to my new Thai friends about the educational environment in Thailand.

More visits. 16 (and 17 and....) June.

And I thought days at IMSA were long....

We spent the next several days visiting schools all over Thailand. Food, geography, and culture vary throughout the country, as perhaps one might expect.

The typical morning on these travels had me waking at perhaps 6:00 and going down to breakfast. Dr. Kosul was usually the earliest riser, and others trickled in as they prepared to tackle another day.

Then on to the School of the Day. This meant a morning of observation – usually from four to six classes, often remaining for only half of the class period.

The Princess Chulabhorn schools – those dozen schools geared toward talented mathematics and science students – had classes with 24 students (like Mahidol). But the class size of a more typical Thai school is upwards of 50 or 60 students. Students sit in well-organized rows, with a class period usually consisting of direct instruction followed by work on exercises.

A delicious lunch then followed. Once done eating, my job was to comment on the classroom observations. It is always a delicate job to praise appropriately so that teachers are validated, but then to offer suggestions for improvement so that the visit is considered worthwhile for those involved.

Then sightseeing. The local school is invariably interested in showcasing the highlights of their city – but unfortunately, this always occurred at the hottest part of the day. There were many interesting sights, but I often felt more exhausted after the trip than when we departed.

On to the next destination! If there was a school to visit the next day, well...we had to get there. We'd drive for a few hours, check in to the hotel, and then go to dinner.

Dinners were not really casual – the officials from the school you were visiting the next day invariably met us at the hotel and accompanied us to dinner. So these were working dinners, where the stage was set for the next day's visit.

We might be finished at 8:00 or 9:00 – and then some time to relax! Of course, that usually took the form of a half-hour of reading, followed by bed. One needed to be well-rested for a similar day tomorrow....

It's a Small World After All. 23–28 June.

Another series of workshops, another flurry of meetings, and....? It was time to write my Summary Report.

My earlier observation – that many of the issues facing the education system in Thailand are the same as those which face American educators – was only reinforced as my visit progressed.

What conclusions may be drawn? Of course you are welcome to read the Summary Report yourself. If you haven't the time (or inclination), I include my opening remarks below. They give a sense of my perspective on Thai (and, as it happens) American education as well. Read at your own peril.

Introduction and Philosophy

It is important to make a distinction between content and curriculum. Content is the sequence of topics covered in a particular class, while curriculum is the pedagogical approach to delivering the content. This usage may not be standard, but will be used throughout this document.

Why this different usage? Effective teaching involves a tension between structure and flexibility. Working toward a set of national standards for mathematics gives teachers a definite structure for teaching. The Basic Education Core Curriculum created by the IPST is an outline of essential content for Grades 1–12.

It seems that curriculum is also highly structured in Thailand. Teachers at all grade levels must follow detailed lesson plans for each class period.

On one hand, this ensures a uniform delivery of important content. On the other hand, this approach leaves little opportunity for flexibility. But flexibility is exactly what is needed to effectively reform curriculum.

In discussing Thailand's historical performance on the PISA exam and its significance in furthering Thailand's economic development, it seems that there is a great need to improve student performance on the mathematics part of this exam. Moreover, many questions are open-ended and require students to not only select a correct answer, but also to give an explanation of how they arrived at that answer.

Currently, the mathematics curriculum in Thailand does not offer sufficient practice in solving these kinds of problems. New approaches, such as inquiry-based or problem-based learning, could better equip students to perform well on such questions.

Yet when discussing different approaches with teachers, it seems that the need to write elaborate lesson plans for each period was a great obstacle to introducing new ideas into the classroom. Any significant change in curriculum is very difficult for any teacher, given the amount of work required to make changes.

This is a significant obstacle. At IMSA, we are able to implement new ideas more easily by keeping content fairly structured, but curriculum more flexible.

Why is this important? Technology changes far more rapidly than curriculum can be rewritten. To become competitive in the 21st century requires keeping up with changing technology –– and making sure students are not only exposed to new technology, but are able to use it competently and effectively. And as students learn to use technology earlier in their lives, these remarks apply to primary as well as secondary students.

Many teachers – especially newer teachers who are able to learn new technology quickly as a result of their own education – are capable of introducing new ideas into the classroom. But they are discouraged by the inflexibility of the current curriculum.

But this new generation of young teachers, familiar with emerging technologies, is a valuable resource for curricular reform. Without a sufficiently flexible curriculum, this resource will be wasted. Given Thailand's recent surge in economic growth, however, it is this resource which is so desperately needed.

It is this philosophy which forms the background for my report – the view that to keep pace with innovation and new technology but still maintain a uniformity in national education, a flexible curriculum based on national standards (that is, structured content) is needed. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how any significant reform can be made in Thailand's educational system.

After You. 22 & 29 June.

"Ice cream on bread?" I asked again.

And then, "We put ice cream on pound cake, or sometimes angel food cake."

Tama insisted, "No, it's not cake. It's ice cream on bread."

Anuchit, Tama, and I were taking a break at a coffee shop a few blocks from the IPST. Not entirely, though, since we were also discussing the upcoming two-day workshop on inquiry-based learning. But it is not unnatural for discussions at coffee shops to move toward the merits of various desserts.

Nothing would dissuade Tama from his position. My hand was forced. "Before I leave, Tama, we'll go get this ice cream on bread of yours. We'll see."

The adventure happened a week later. I had finished a draft of my Summary Report earlier in the day, and Anuchit and Tama were given leave to accompany me on my quest.

After You wasn't hard to get to, since it was located in a shopping mall a few stops away on the Skytrain. The place was bustling with shoppers – not unlike you would see at a large mall here. At just 2:00 in the afternoon. Many tourists.

There was a queue. That gave us time to go to a bookstore, where I bought some books for learning Thai. Tama knew the layout of the Paragon intimately. We were to the bookstore and back just in time to be seated.

We ordered drinks, then dessert (two desserts for the three of us). A few moments after our drinks came, the first of the desserts was delivered to our table. On the large plate in front of us, enticingly arranged, was, I had to admit, ice cream on bread.

"Tama, this is ice cream on bread!" I commented (a little grudgingly).

"I told you. I don't tell lies," said Tama.

What it was not was vanilla ice cream on a slice of French baguette. The bread was a small loaf, a little crunchy on the outside, and – here was the difference – soaked in honey. With scoops of ice cream and whipped cream surrounding it. And some extra honey on the side if you were of that mind.

Exquisite. I have never had anything like it, and I loved it. It didn't take long for us to finish it, although Anuchit held back a bit. It was going on three o'clock, and he had dinner plans after work.

And just when I thought it couldn't get any better, it did. The second dessert had arrived. Two small chocolate lava cakes, accompanied (again) by yummy ice cream.

Now have you ever wondered why they're called chocolate lava cakes?

A genuine chocolate lava cake (unlike those cheap imitations you find here) has the following delicious property: when you gently poke the thin, cakey skin on the top, a warm, heavenly river of chocolate flows from the center of the cake, creating a small pool of decadence.

Real chocolate. Warm. Oozing. Gooey. Scrumptious. Yum.

I'm not sure what more there is to say, except that experiencing a real chocolate lava cake should be a high priority in the life of anyone who professes a passion for chocolate. And if it is necessary to travel to Bangkok in order to do so, well, then travel to Bangkok one must. Some sacrifices must be made.


What is Culture?

It was difficult being back.

The food – Thai food is practically a culture in itself. I miss being able to walk across the street and get good food. You can't do that in the suburbs.

Put aside for the moment the fact that I was treated as an honored guest – this may be true, but it may also be counterbalanced by the occasional fifteen-hour days I put in during our travels. I worked at least as much as I would during any three-week interval at IMSA.

But the people in Thailand are just different. Naturally this is a truism – a country with a rich history, primarily Buddhist, tropical – of course the people are different.

The nature of the difference? Some Thais envy American individualism. But this comes at a price. Americans are abrasive. (It is challenging to come up with the precise word I want here.) I can see how I am abrasive, too. How else is one to survive in a culture of rampant individualism?

Perhaps Thais are too self-effacing? Is this preferable to being abrasive? What are the relative costs of these competing ways of being?

One is tempted to suggest that it is simply a matter of striking the right balance. I am not convinced that this is a meaningful suggestion.

Think of talking a pleasant walk on a warm Spring day. The weather is perfect, the sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing.

What is your experience of this day? It's not the stifling hot late in a midwestern summer, nor the bitter chill deep in a Chicago winter. But is it a balance of hot and cold? It's not likely you are experiencing any of the feelings associated with either extreme. You are just warm – but not as a balance of heat and cold. Just warm.

The Buddha taught about the Middle Way. The story of the historical Buddha tells of his experiments with asceticism and self-indulgence, neither of which he considered was the path to Enlightenment. But the Middle Way is not simply an average of two extremes – nor a balance between the two. One may paddle a boat with the current, or perhaps against the current. Or one may simply not row. The state of not rowing is not a balance between rowing upstream and rowing downstream, but rather transcends the need to row. This requires a fundamental shift in perspective.

Perhaps culture is the type of boat, or style of rowing.

By balancing relevant amounts of white and black, one may create any shade of gray. But never color.

© 2004-12 vincent j matsko vmatsko(at)imsa(dot)edu
illinois mathematics and science academy