(This post is about as long and aimless as they come)
“I had diarrhea for 6 weeks! I was only in India for FIVE!” Mark wailed.
Traveling to a third world country really puts things into perspective.
I spent most of the night yesterday trading stories of my travels in Philipines for Mark’s in India to Philipines and it was good for me, I think.
When I went to Asia last month, I covered four countries. Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Philipines. The country that gave me the most mixed feelings was the Philipines. It was there that I saw the the largest range of experiences, literally in story from cradle to grave.
I think largely I got frustrated trying to talk to people in Montreal about it because the first people I spoke to were an older crowd of relatives. This changes their involvement as an audience for two reasons:
Firstly, they always assume that they know better than me. So when I say that the situation in Philipines is “complicated” it doesn’t matter what comes out of my mouth after that point– they’ve already decided that, in their aged wisdom, they know what “complicated” means, and that I’m just getting a taste.
Secondly, they’re the sorts of people who go to places as tourists. I mean, they go into countries or try do things as outsiders, never really allowing themselves to become truly involved in certain things. When they visit countries, it’s more to take photographs with them in the foreground and some monument in the background so they can go home and say “I was there” rather than to actually go somewhere and understand the philosophical, cultural and historical significance of something beyond that “those foreign countries are so crazy compared to Canada.” It’s a real ‘point and stare’ menality where there’s a clearcut division between “them” and “us”.
Not reallIy having reflected on these things prior to telling them about my travels, I was extremely disheartened when I wanted to tell them all about it and ask them for their insight and all I got was “Yeah, that’s pretty bad out there, huh? So, did you buy a lot of stuff?”
GOD! COULD YOU PEOPLE BE ANY MORE OBLIVIOUS TO THE REST OF THE WORLD!
… I felt like a hippie. I was trying to tell them the genuine disgust I felt as some sights of poverty that I saw out there, and also some of the most heartwarming scenes that seemed even more real than in Canada because it was in contrast to such dire circumstances. But they weren’t really listening to me. It just went right through them, I felt they were humoring me at best.
…. it is through the past few weeks though that I came to terms with things a bit better. Asia, as a whole, was really a philosophical shock to me– I do not say that lightly. I say without being in the slightest bit exaggerative when I say I do not scare easily. Nor am I am not easily at a loss for words.
…Yet, in a very strange and powerful way, the thing that was most shocking was coming back to Canada.
Let me tell you a few stories of the experiences I had in Asia.
Road rage? What road rage? In the Asian countries that I visited, the car honk isn’t an artificial simulation of a swear word. People don’t toot it to tell you to piss off, they don’t jam it down to tell you fuck you and die. They beep it as a warning. Are you trying to pass a slower vehicle? Are you coming in on a pedestrian who isn’t looking in your direction? Toot your horn and inform them of your presence. That’s all it is.
Even with the close scrapes, I mean literally within an inch of eachother, vehicles that I saw never hit the horn as a signal of disrespect.
The streets in any asian country may have lines– dashed, solid, double, mixed– just like in North America. But people seldom pay attention to them. They aren’t lines; they are, very loosely, guidelines. And so it is that in every conceivable nook an cranny, there is either a car or a scooter or a bicycle or a pedestrian or a tuk tuk or a moto-tricycle or whatever. Every inch of available floor space is used.
In North America, we watch Hollywood movies and we think that the high speed car chase is the most awesome thing possible. We think that that is skill, that a revving engine and a big engine between our legs is somehow a social mark of power.
I’ve always held that equipment is only secondary to skill.
So when some guy starts drag racing down a residential zone with his screeching on the pavement, am I impressed?
Not in the slightest.
It doesn’t take a strong engine to skid your tires– it only takes cheap ones that don’t grip. It doesn’t take a strong engine just to make a lot of noise– just a cheap muffler. It doesn’t take any skill to stand on the gas.
It does take a shitload of stupidity to start racing in a residential zone with children playing in the streets.
But you won’t see people with that luxury in most urbanized Asian places. If you want to show off your superiority behind the wheel, why not do it the way that Asian transportion earned my awe?
Pedal a tricycle uphill while carrying 2 passengers. Weave your bicycle through traffic on a highway during monsoon rain that’s 3 inches high. Cut accross 5 lanes of traffic wihtout causing an accident.
If there is one very differing concept between the East and West, it’s this idea of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’, which is something that reminds me a lot of old conversations with Chili.
The main thing is that the grandchild of all the freedom of the west is this idea that people are entitled to things. I am entitled to protection by the law. I have the right of way on the road when situation X happens. I have the right to an education. I have the right to bitch at the counter when my food gets to me cold. I have the right to speak to the manager when I think that the seller is discriminating against me. I have the right to feel safe. I have the right to feel comfortable. I have the right to be protected by the laws all about rights so as long as I play the game.
I have rights.
In Asia– who are you kidding?
You have no rights.
On the day I arrived in Manilla for the first time, the country was raining hard as the coat tails of the Taiwanese typhoon passed nearby. We got into the car at the airport, and promptly got stuck in traffic for two hours for a distance that was less than 30 km away. We were told not to open the windows– not only was the rain toxic, the air on roadways could cause sickness in foreigners unaccostomed to it. Further, leaving a window open in Quezon City was an invitation to a carjacking.
When we got into an underground tunnel, I noticed that there were no lights on.
“They don’t put lights in the tunnels anymore,” said my uncle “because someone a few years ago figured out that with a modified firetruck, you could steal all those expensive bulbs.”
And so for several years, tunnels throughout Manilla have been illuminated only by the procession of head and taillights. At the lowest point of the tunnel, I could see the water going more than halfway up some of the cars’ wheels.
I began to doze off, my head against the glass– the traffic was so long. Nothing was happening.
I heard a tapping noise behind me. “Sweet @(%#*@ jeezus!” I jumped, seeing a face in the window suddenly. It was a man with a hollow expression, holding up a sausage on a stick. My uncle, without thinking about it, without making eye contact, waved the man on when he approached by the driver side window. The strange food vendor’s expression did not change– he simply waded through the tunnel water in the obscurity, going from car to car trying to sell his snacks.
We’re talking about him sloshing through a foot of tunnel water– water that’s absorbed nothing but car exhaust and the carcinogens of residual engine oil and brake dust– and he’s selling hotdogs to people stuck in traffic.
As we inch through the tunnel, we’re offered several other things as well, ranging from wallets to rice cakes.
Later when I got to Tacloban, I saw the flipside of the corruption. I mean, why it happens.
I’m reminded of the phrase “beyond good and evil”. Not that it’s totally appropriate, but really, what I’m thinking is that there’s a very fine line between right and wrong, and sometimes, there is no line– the two are intrinsicly and unavoidably linked.
It was in Tacloban that I got to see what family life in the Philipines was like. People protect their own– that’s why the backwards lawlessness of the country happens. Because people will do anything for family. Family is the begining and the end of all things in the Philippines.
WHen my mother ran into one of her high school friends, that friend instantly organized a high school reunion of her entire class. There was karaoke, there was lots of food, and everyhing. Over 30 people had instantly mobilized within half a day to greet us.
And the next day, there was another party.
And the day after, there was to be another one, but we couldn’t attend since we had to fly out.
My point is– that camraderie is so much stronger than what I see in Canada. In Canada, everyone has to check their schedules and see if they can figure out a suitable time that everyone can meet. We have to plan it days, sometimes weeks in advance. In Philippines? No. We will drop everything to be with you. Family is first.
In order to protect that, people will break the law. Even ‘the law’, I mean, the police, they will do what they must to survive. That means arresting people for violations, only to take bribes to put in their own pockets. It happens all the time, everyone knows it– it’s part of the game.
The extent to which lawlessness prevails can be best summed up by the 50k peso price on a human life. If you accidentally kill someone, you’re expected to pay about 50k pesos (a bit over 1000 USD/CAD) to the family, sort of like a life insurance payout.
If you’re rich– well, it’s apparently quite easy to arrange for whatever you want.
Anyway, all this is to say something simple: you could die at any time. On purpose. Or by accident.
And this leads me back to the culture shock I experienced when I came back to Montreal.
Do you know how ludicrous it seems to me when people stick their heads out of their car windows and start swearing, shaking their fists at other drivers in rushour traffic? I see people on highways, sometimes in the cars that I’m in, driving as if people are personally out to get them. Every shift of the flow of cars is either a personal attack or at least a lack of respect.
In Asia, traffic is ten times worse in any country than in Canada or US. Nobody gets upset. There’s no reason to– what does it change in the situation? They just don’t. They’ve moved on.
The other day, while in downtown St. Cathering, walking with Carlo, we witnessed a screaming fight between a woman and some guy over a parking spot. There was yelling loud enough to be heard all over the block about who deserved the space and all that. It was ugly, and if you ask me, they were both sort of embarassing themselves.
Is that what life is supposed to be about? Getting all riled up over stupid little things?
I’ve seen ten year old children wearing only their underwear in typhoon rain, funneling rainwater off a CocaCola ad into cups to drink in the streets, only blocks away fom a Church which only the rich can enter. That kid is thankful for a lot of things. Does he look upset about anything?
How easy is it to get upset about not getting what we think we deserve? What we’re entitled to?
A lot of modern North America is luxury, in the most accurate sense. Things we think we need, we don’t really– we just want them. People will say they need that car or that shirt, or whatever– when really, what do they really know about needs when every one of our basic survival needs is automatically handed to us?
I do not want to sound preachy, but it is inevitable: there are so many people out there who live with so much less than us, and they live, on top of that, happily.
Coming back to Canada, I found it ludicrous that people are already losing their temper when they wait in line to buy a bus pass. Why can’t people be more patient?
When we arrived in Tacloban airport, the luggage area doesn’t have any conveyor belts– they just put all the luggage on a knee -high counter, and everyone just sort of milled about trying to claim what was theirs. Some people were even standing on the counter. There is no such thing as a lineup. If you can surive, i mean, tolerate and be okay with that, well, most of the things that North America gets upset about seem stupid in comparison.
When I got back to North America, the idea that I could walk into a store and see the same shirt in 4-5 designer colors selling for three digit price tags was ludicrous. The same shirts could sell for under ten dollars in the Philippines– and, I don’t care what you think, a shirt in America is the same as a shirt in Philippines. The only difference is that there are so many middle men making huge profits.
Basic hygene– some toilets in Asia were basically like a urinal in the floor. You squat to do your number two. There is no toilet paper. Flushing? The flushing system is a barrel full of water with a measuring-cup-sized pail, which you use to throw water to wash your shit down the hole.
As Mark mentiond about India, there are corners of the Philippines and Thailand where so called ‘extinct’ illnesses such as black plague, typhoid and polio are still in existence.
Now, where does this all leave me thinking about 1st world North America?
There’s a lot of things that cross my mind. Firstly, that a lot of the pace of North America really isn’t as efficient as we think it is. We like to think that we live stressfull lives because we’re getting somewhere, but the fact is, a lot of that stress has to do with the upkeep of unnecessary things that really have nothing to do with our happiness. The statement “more is better”, without qualification, without thought, is one of the biggest myths propogated by our consumer culture.
Before I left for Asia, I already had that suspicion. After returning from it, no doubts remained– we can do so much with so little, if only we can focus on what is important.
And what is important?
That’s a bit hard to say. But as the saying goes, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 1000 ways that don’t work,” becoming a better person isn’t easily about ‘finding the answer’ but also by the active elimination of false leads.
During the summertime, we complain about traffic to get to downtown. It doesn’t compare to Asian traffic in any country where the maximum speed is somewhere less than 20kmph in a roadway where the air has enough carbon to lower your life expectancy by the double digits. We have so much difficulty commiting to use something like a bicycle, or to wear anything but brand name shoes, when people in asia run taxis carrying five passengers up hills with pedal power alone, wearing flipflops that do nothing to protect their feet from foot high monsoon water mixed with backed-up sewage.
Who’s got the worse situation? But that’s not my point– my point is, who’s doing the most complaining?
I cannot agree that money is the end of my life. It may sound harsh of me, but I agree with Mark on many matters. Thes most loud point I can make is when I see people stressing out, to the point of violence, over their rights to a parking space to the point where they’d be throwing out profanities and shaking white-knuckled fists in rage over who has the right of way. What the fuck is wrong with you people??
When you go to a third world country, you really realize that life is worth only as much as you make it worth, and even if it’s worth that much, there is never any guarantee that you’ll be allowed to continue it. It can end in an instant. It costs only 50000 pesos for you to be forgotten. In other countries, you just won’t be noticed– you might be the body covertly chopped into cubes in a box at a street corner as a warning for local gangs not to fuck with the local ‘law’. You might die of dehydration during a rainy season (ironically), because overworked sewage backs up and you get sick with diarhhea as your body tries to eliminate poison from your system. There are many ways for you to get hurt, or sick, or to die.
Yet somehow, third world countries know something about the essentials of life that first world countries are so clueless to.
Am I idealizing it? It’s not that simple. I would never wish for North America to have the living conditions of a third world country. However, I do wish that we could learn a thing or two about the word “value”.
Is there a connection that can be made? I look at some of the concerns in North America. For example, the ongoing debate about global warming. As somewhat of a pro-greener myself, I will admit something that would contradict the efforts of environmental groups in North America– and that is that the chances we can make a difference are very slim.
We can recycle. Sure. We can lower emissions.
Do you know what the recycling program in a third world country is like? It is using glass bottles as a home-brew of barbed wire by cementing broken shards as toppings to walls. Emissions reductions is wearing a mask over your face so you don’t suck so much smog as you ride your motorcycle down a 10 lane motorway.
For every inch that we save in North America, the exponential growth rate of Asia takes a mile more.
A lot of the motorized vehicles in Thailand and Philipines still use leaded fuel, which has been banned in most countries because– well, it’s LEAD. Remember the Romans and their lead plumbing, and all their crazy ass emperors commiting incest, rape and dancing to the fiddle as the city burned? Lead does crazy shit to your body, none the least of which is lopping years off your lungs if it’s airborn in a thick pasty cloud of smoke.
Are you really going to go to a third world country and say to a man, “Gee sir, I know that you need to use leaded fuel to run your taxi and put bread on the table, but really, it’s bad for the environment. Would you mind maybe switching to a cleaner fuel?”
What cleaner fuel?
But am I saying that it’s futile, and that the world is doomed to environmental catastrophe?
No. Quite the opposite.
We need to do our best– because we can. Because others don’t have that option. Others who have less options make so much more with what they have. North America is in the business of hoarding options. You know what those options are called? Dollars.
What is a dollar, when you think about it, but a representation of time and work? The more money you have, the more ‘freedom’ you have.
And yet… squandered. What really is the difference between being well off and poor if money is only spent on meaningless things that bring no real happiness to the person?
Let me emphasize something: “real happiness”.
For different people, this means different things. What I do find though is that people often don’t dig deep enough to figuring out what really makes them happy. Or, they’re afraid of what makes them happy. They’re afraid to let that part of them out or to show it off.
Instead, they settle for things that are publicly accepted as happy-makers. Thus, for some reason, it’s okay to say out loud that you want to buy this new BMW (a BMW that you’ll trade in in a few years, if statistics are any indication) and it’ll make you happy, and yet, when someone says she wants to be a housewife, love her husband forever and spend the rest of her life raising children, people start whispering femminist rhetoric.
Screw the rhetoric! If you find what makes you happy, you have found something that exists outside of the moneyline. Then money and material posessions fall back to the background, getting out of the way of REAL life, returning to what they were meant to be– tools.
And if we want to get into metaphors, my problem with most of North American culture is that it doesn’t value what you can use these tools for. It places the emphasis on having the biggest toolshed with the biggest collection of tools. High end this, high end that– the limitation on human potential isn’t, in most cases, the equipment– it is the willpower and the dedication behind the user.
This is the difference between the poorer corners of Asia and most of North America. Asia’s culture is dictated by practice– North America’s culture is dictated by theory. What I mean by this is that tools in Asia are exactly that: tools. Tools in North America are not just tools, and are seldom used in the guerilla fashion that would make them truly efficient. Tools in North America are just as often used as symbols of power or status in a facade of meaningless social heirarchy that amazingly perpetuates itself through the generations.
Why go through all that trouble?
In the past few weeks I have spend a lot of times with friends and family, as I near my departure for Korea. In exchanging stories, I say without hesitation that the greatest emotions that I hear about come from the events in which my friends have connected with something. I mean, when something deep inside of them connects with something outside of them and allowed them to grow in ways that made them irreversibly changed. I never hear about a material possession being in itself the real prize. It’s what such tools give them. In the end, what’s ‘real’ turns out to be exactly what we cannot see or touch. It all comes down to feelings.
It was a pair of running shoes that represented the first step in a few laps around a park. It was a descision to let the loved one free. It was moving out to find independence and to risk it all for a dream. It was a secret love that couldn’t happen. It was defiance of parental expctations to find one’s own path. It was making it into the finals, only to lose by a point. It was slaving over the soil so that the sphagetti sauce could be made with home-grown tomatoes.
THESE are the things people tell me about. And so it is my asssumption that these are the most important things to them.
These are the things– the senses of good pride and loss that make people feel closer to who they want to be. The emotions that drive us. These things, Asia knows and North America knows– but I fear that oftentimes, we lose sight of what it means to allow ourselves sensations. We get used to the idea of being numb.
I say, when you’re in a bad mood, when you’re depressed… soak in it. Savor it. It’s part of who you are. If you turn into a monster, so be it! You can’t fight it if it’s really a part of you, can you? If you try to run, you’ll only be running from yourself.
And so it is my usual advice that when tough times come up, you don’t waste too much energy fighting it… just let the resistance fade, take it for what it is. Don’t try to mask it with other things, like so many people who get into bad habits just to break out of another.
If I can just use it as a verb, I’d tell you to “Zen” your way through life. Weathering storms has a LOT to do with perspective, a lot to do with the flexibility of your mind to see even the negative in a positive way. A lot of useless shit falls away automatically when you decide that your hardships aren’t just obstacles, but stepping stones.
Confidence comes from knowing that you are the kind of person who will do things without wavering.
…. working in a hospital already tainted my view on life, because we had to deal with so much death. Asia hammered the point in– a North American death is oftentimes in a hospital bed, and it’s predicted. In Asia, the greater ratio is in the streets, and it is for the most part unpredicted.
With the Third World nations in such self destructive circles, what can we really do, you may ask? How can we change that?
I can’t tell you what you can do for people half a world away. I don’t beleive that that sort of colonial approach is justified, nor was it, nor will it be–
— at least, not until you clean up your own backyard.
That means that you need to live your life to the maximum of your potential. That means that, if people in Third Worlds lack opportunities and you have them, you damn well better make use of them because that, ladies and gentlemen, is your lot. You have no right to those opportunities– no more than a person hit by a bus some day could say “Hey, that’s not fair!”
You have no right to these opportunities, you only have the luck that they are yours at the moment. So don’t waste them. Stop thinking about what society wants from you, start thinking about what you want for yourself, and how you yourself can change the world. Society doesn’t dictate what you do– you ARE society, remember? Stop chasing your own tail! Walk in whatever direction you want!
And for the love of God, think about what you want, think about what makes you truly feel things. Forget about all that crap that you think you want. You know what I mean– when I ask you what you want, and you give me an answer with hesitation when somewhere, in your stomach, there’s this tightening feeling like you’re telling me a white lie. Trust that feeling. It’s only through introspection into the very nature of your emotions that you’ll ever be able to connect with anyone else, and I firmly beleive that it is through this connection that we can change the world.