Sunday, March 11, 2012
Symbols, Images and Meaning
I think this picture of the signs for the "restroom" which I took just this morning is not only explicit, it is hilarious. No question about what one does in these rooms, is there? It's also clear that one is for men, and one is for women but both are in similar situations of...um... distress.
There was one room, directly opposite the woman's room, that was wheelchair accessible. The image on the door was that of a 'stick figure' in a wheelchair, racing full speed ahead, his mouth and eyes clearly in distress.
I didn't want to hang around and take a picture of that. It was bad enough that I was taking pictures of these signs for bathrooms. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Thai people walking around me and I could almost hear them thinking, "Farang lady ding dong." Or, maybe even, "pervert".
There are, of course, lots of signs all 'round that are for hotels and restaurants and shops. Those that cater to a certain audience have their message written in Thai and the language of the audience with which they intend to communicate.
So, one finds signs and adverts written in Thai, English and German, for example and one knows what one will find on the menu there.
Others are written only in Thai and Arabic - but one knows that this is a Muslim establishment because, more often than not, there are men and women out front smoking.....something.....in hookahs.
Take Care is pretty clear, isn't it?
In case you couldn't tell, this is an AIDS organization, especially targeting gay men.
Like every place else in the world, HIV/AIDS in Thailand is hardly limited to gay men, but the only adverts I've seen target gay men.
From the material I've been able to pick up around town I've learned that the first case of HIV/AIDS in Thailand was diagnosed in 1984. It was diagnosed in the States on June 5, 1981.
And, like everywhere else in the world, the first diagnosed cases were primarily among gay men, commercial sex workers, intravenous drug uses and tourists.
My pamphlet informs me that the case of Cha-on Suesom, a factory worker who became infected with HIV following a blood transfusion, was widely broadcast through the media after he agreed to allow his story and identity to be publicized in 1987.
He became well known after appearing on TV shows and in national newspapers, allowing the public to appreciate the human side of the epidemic. Cha-on and his wife had both been fired from their jobs as a result of his HIV-positive status, and the injustice of this situation helped to increase public sympathy for people living with HIV.
This is the way it seems to happen, doesn't it? No one cares if the "disposable" people in one's culture are affected. When "normal" people become affected, suddenly it's a "health crisis" and there are "injustices" which play on the "sympathies" of people.
According to another pamphlet I picked up, in 2010 there were over 67,000,000 people from all walks of life in Thailand who were living with HIV/AIDS. And yet, to see the signs, one would assume that it was still a "gay disease". Or, perhaps, it is that gay men are more proactive in "taking care". Or, more than likely, I'm not able to read the signs that may well be around but written only in Thai.
If you want to communicate with me, however, you're going to need to do that in pictures and images with very few words - preferably in English - but as long as the images are strong, I'll get your message and you'll be heard.
Except, there is this one sign I noticed the other night at Jom Tien Beach. It was dark so I couldn't get a good picture of it. It had "Take Care" in bold across the top and I'm assuming Thai on the bottom.
The image was one of an eight ball heading into the side pocket of a pool table. There was a man and a woman standing behind the eight ball, looking very sad. The man was holding a pool stick. The woman was nearest the side pocket of the pool table.
Clever, I thought. Take care. Don't 'get behind the eight ball" with HIV/AIDS.
My favorite one thus far is the one that says, "When money speaks, truth is silent."
It is written in English and Thai.
It is clearly written in English. Not Thai or German or Arabic.
Guess who they want to read this sign?
Guess who apparently needs to read this sign?
Signs sometimes say more than the words or images on the sign.
I wore my small Celtic cross out to dinner last night. The waiter noticed it immediately and said something before I even sat down.
"Christian?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, quietly, not really wanting to get into a conversation about religion.
I noticed he was wearing a jade Buddha sitting za zen (praying) around his neck and complimented him on how lovely it was, happy for the diversion from a potential conversation about religion.
We shared mutual 'oohs' and 'aahs' over our religious jewelry.
"Ah," he said, "Christian - Buddhist same-same."
I looked at him quizzically, not sure what he meant. "How so?" I asked.
"Dukkah," he said, adding, "Cross is dukkah, yes?"
"Ah, yes," I said, suddenly catching his meaning. "Suffering is dukkah, yes, yes."
Oh, I suppose I knew it but hadn't made that sharp a connection.
Except, of course, Christians believe that Jesus came to relieve suffering through salvation from our "original sin".
Buddhists believe that suffering is simply a part of the enterprise of being human - a suffering which is, predominantly, self-inflicted because of our "cravings".
Christians look to Jesus and follow His teachings to relieve suffering which will only really end when we die and "return" to Paradise (Heaven) for "Eternal Life".
Buddhists follow his Dharma (teachings) to find the path through detachment and moral living to enlightenment ("Nirvana") which one can experience in this life.
Funny how Christians wear the cross around our necks as a symbol of our faith and Buddhists wear the Buddha sitting in prayer as a symbol of theirs.
What are we communicating? And, to whom? What is the "message" people are getting from our signs and symbols? What meaning does it have for people?
Which is the more powerful symbol, I wonder: The image of a cross of suffering and redemption from "original sin" which we'll only fully know after we die....OR... the image of a man in prayer who says, "Come, follow my teaching and you will learn how to deal with inevitable suffering and find enlightenment in this life"?
The image of the cross is one that requires a great deal of explanation in order for people to understand it as a symbol of hope. The image of Buddha is pretty clear and straightforward: Meditation and prayer as a symbol of hope.
I wear my cross without even giving much thought to its symbol and meaning. For me, and I suspect for lots of Christians who would be equally hesitant to admit this, it's more a piece of jewelry than an outward statement of faith.
I mean, Madonna is pretty famous for wearing lots of crosses while she cavorted about the stage in a white dress and bustier which showed lots of cleavage, singing, "Like a virgin" - which she looked anything but.
How did it come to be that the cross became so meaningless for so many people? Does it mean something that it has become meaningless? Is it time for a new symbol? Maybe something a bit more explicit, like the restroom signs I spotted this morning?
Even my waiter understood something about the symbol of my faith to which I had become numb and taken for granted. And, he immediately saw the parallels and the things we have in common, rather than the differences.
I've never worn a cross with a corpus - and, never would - but I sort of fancy a cross with a dove of peace taking wing as something that says more about what I believe about Christianity.
What I find curious is that I had to come to a Buddhist nation to get more serious about my Christianity. Not that I wasn't or haven't been serious about it, but I suppose it comes from the challenge of being a minority when I've been in a decided majority.
Then again, they are just signs and symbols, aren't they?
Faith is not something one wears about one's neck or sticks on one's lapel.
Faith is to be lived. The only way to have faith is to live it.
God is not to be talked about so much as to be experienced.
I'm beginning to hear a deeper meaning of the wisdom attributed to St. Francis who is rumored to have taught his monks, "Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words."
To which I would add, "And, use symbols even more sparingly".
They have a power all their own.