1. How was life in Beirut different in those days and what are your most vivid memories of that time?
My memories of childhood in Beirut is like Popeye’s special can of spinach. When I’m weakened by life’s challenges, I reach for those special memories of a happy childhood and feeling thankful that I was blessed with that, I can face the next foe that comes my way.
Maybe every 7 years old experience the same period of enchantment I had; innocence, protected, unconscious of the turmoil of the adult world around them, totally enclosed in a wonderland of their own making. Then by the time one becomes 11-13, he’s a little bit more conscious of the world around him but not totally, more intensely aware of their immediate social group – other adolescents of their own ages where the school is main backdrop for all of that initial outreach to the world. Responsibility and engagements in world affairs were not yet demanded of us.
I remember Beirut as a beautiful place, vivid blue skies and beautiful people. I loved walking the seaside boulevard with my parents, visiting Pigeon rock, playing in the street in front of our apartment with anyone wanting to play, having the freedom to bike with some friends to explore places my Mom would have scolded me for daring to go, picnics in the countryside where you needn’t fear you were trespassing on someone’s property, and just enough awesomely ancient places to visit to make one wonder about the greater humanity we belong to.
Actually, come to think about it, the time I shared with my siblings and parents during those years were more important than I had considered. Maybe even more than the great time I had at school. I didn’t like going to the markets with my Mom but they were extraordinary, full of sound, people, smell, something strange and new to experience. I remember my shock at seeing a hen slit in the throat, and another person sitting beside plucking out another dead one’s feathers. However, there was also the delicious aroma of bread shops we visited. A kid’s favorite treat seemed to be fresh-baked pita! I didn’t know that I liked the smell of cooked lamb until I was a grown up in far away lands where lamb’s not so common, and that particular smell could pull me in like a magnet to some exotic Lebanese restaurant.
When I was old enough to be allowed to walk to school, I was constantly entertained or tortured by my brother’s teasing, or simply absorbing in the familiar path dotted with trees and nice buildings. My parents were very sociable and we hosted many visits of trainees of the aviation profession, friends who worked for the UN, some visiting officials, or countrymen who were passing by. There was even a Thai princess who came for a yatch race. With the guests, we took many trips to see the famous tour sites of Lebanon, one day we even drove all the way to Damascus on the invitation of someone who had visited us. There was a beautiful starry night one Christmas Eve, walking home from a party with parents and brothers, so beautiful I thought I saw angels dancing in the sky. It snowed one winter night in the city as we came out of the cinema… it was magical because it rarely snows in the city. When we took trips up the mountains during winter time, the near blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow felt strangely out of place and it also never felt as cold as it should have been. It would always fill me with wonder to be able to transport myself from a sunny seaside to sunny snowcapped mountains in less than an hour. In the summer, my parents took us swimming often at the club or just to join the crowd at beaches with family friends. I remember trying to learn how to play tennis with the wall while my dad did his rounds with his friends, learning how to bike with my dad down a very steep hill. A friend of my father’s invited us to his country house one time and they went pigeon hunting. Somehow, grilled pigeon looked better than broiled chicken! I had two best friends who weren’t from school but from my apartment building, one Fillipina whose brothers went to Salesian, another Turkish whose brother also went to Salesian, and there was a pretty Armenian girl as well.
Some happy moments in school were when I was able to do well in some sports or games. I really enjoyed the trips organized by the school. What was the name of that camping ground that I have vague memories of it being property of the school? We went there many times. Among my classmates, I remember friends from England, Yugoslavia and Egypt. There were other countries as well, generally the feeling was that these classmates from various places didn’t stay for long much. The ones I knew for a long time who were my classmates for more than 2 or 3 years, I couldn’t find much in common with, being an Asian, I felt a bit out of place there. The common question on the streets were, “Where are you from?” “Are you from Japan?” Very few had a clue about where Thailand was. I think I shifted back and forth from being very shy and spontaneously expressing myself. What gave me confidence was the fact that I was there for a longer time compared to other kids in class. Simon Busby was the only classmate I remember being in my cIass from Grade 2 through to Grade 8.
I remember being able to accomplish some amazing spin and fly feats on the monkey bar in front of the football field. Volleyball and basketball was fun when I could get the ball which the boys somehow got more of than the girls. However, I discovered that I wasn’t a good runner and I was embarrassed to come out last in the race during that famous Kermesse. I loved reading and that was really encouraged and supported at Salesian. Later in life, I’ve come to realize that I had received the best reading program possible, speed reading became real handy later in my work with the government. The library was my hunting ground and there was a kind librarian that encouraged me to look for different kinds of books, even if I was quite crazy for the romantic novels…. well, there also was Nancy Drew and stories about British boarding schools…Enid Blyton. I liked the challenge of the touch typing classes, I think they were with Father Leahy. French classes were fun but I don’t think I learnt much. However, I think those classes encouraged me to take French as a second language all the way until University, and gave me confidence to pursue other languages as well. There was a geography teacher in either fourth or fifth grade who had fascinating stories to tell about the world. I remember the spelling bees more than the materials of various other subjects.
The bad memories that brought reality closer to my enchanted world and drove in the fact that I was in a country affected by war were when during the first two years of our arrival to Lebanon (‘67-68), a number of siren warning of air raids would pitch the whole apartment in black for long terrifying moments. I never witnessed any bombing or shooting but the fear and tension when my parents talked about it certainly were transmitted. The last year before we were transferred back home, a car bomb was defused in the garage of a new shopping mall close to our apartment. A radio station a block away got bombed, we felt the vibrations and heard the glass shattering. A grandma of neighbors on the 2nd floor caught a stray bullet in her leg sitting out on her afternoon nap in her balcony.
2. How do you think that the years of school in Beirut have influenced your later life?
Some of the influences I have already mentioned above. The most important influence seems to have been because I experienced a happy childhood in Beirut, that made me basically a very healthy person psychologically.
Hmm, well, there’s the strange fact that I’m a Buddhist but I can recite the Lord’s prayers still by heart, and I love the sacred atmosphere in churches all over the world.
Being out of place in Beirut and to later feel out of place in my own country when we moved back to Thailand (for lack of a community to practice the language with, I couldn’t speak, read or write my own native language and had to take elementary Thai at 14), made me ask a lot of questions about people around me, and about what makes a society tick. It could have been seeing my father’s work as a government representative and his own training as an economist in action that sort of had me follow his footsteps. However, my brother once called me an activist and I wondered about that, I suppose I do try to fix the world in what ways I can and it probably had something to do with the subconscious knowledge that the world can go pretty wrong.
The contact with war in Lebanon and the arab conflict steered me towards a pretty long term interest in the role of the international oil industry. I wrote a paper about it for my Masters. I still find the question of oil and how its interests drives the world’s economy fascinating.
3. Whom did you stay in touch with over the years?
I exchanged letters with Maya, from Yugoslavia, who had left before the war started for some time, then we lost contact. I used to have dreams about Lebanon and the school for years until my brother, Joompon, found some contacts from Salesian onclassmates.com in the late 90s. He passed word of Berit Ericson whom I have since exchanged some emails. Anand sent me an email through classmates.com. He had put up a pretty complete list of names of classmates but I can’t access that site and had lost his email. The Catalans, through my brother again. With Facebook, I found Samantha Naccachian who was classmates around grade 2-4, I think. Sevim and her brother Najib Tawil. I wouldn’t have found any of them if it weren’t for my brother!
4. Would you have liked to stay in Beirut after having finished school? And do you think your life would have been different?
Without doubt…if there were no war, if my father weren’t reposted back home, I would have happily continued living there. Wishful thinking. Of course, it’d have been different, I’d be Lebanese! I’d be able to eat Lebanese food everyday instead of searching out good Lebanese restaurants!
5. Do you think you will return to Lebanon one day? And if so, or not, why?
I would certainly love to. However, I have to work on planning and budgeting, time’s running out fast now. I’d like to see if I can find anything of what I remember. I’d like to be able to breathe the fresh Mediterranean air again, I do think it’s different there than the other Mediterranean places I’ve visited since. I think revisiting would take me back to the question started there, what makes societies tick. Nothing beats hands on, on-the-ground experiencing.
6. Are you interested in taking part in future reunions of ex-students?
I would but I don’t live a few hours away from Beirut.