Monday, August 12, 2013

Lincoln, Buddha and Ramses

I've been meaning to write this piece for quite a while; actually since the beginning of the year. Sadly, a seven month purgatory in the US stagnated most of my creative juices. That was followed by a few months in which I shifted continents, moved back to my hometown in Thailand after six years, and started a new job teaching rowdy Thai first graders English.

The few, mildly chaotic weeks, have replenished me as a writer though and I feel inspired enough to attempt the article I've decided to call: Lincoln, Buddha and Ramses.

I've been to 19 countries throughout my life, and set foot on five continents. However, there are three countries that I've been more intimate with than others.

The United States: My country of birth, the country of my parents' birth, and my country of citizenship.

Thailand: The country I was raised in and spent most of my childhood and teenage years.

And Egypt: The country where I experienced life fresh out of college and was exposed to the trials of being a single adult in the wider world...trials that were further exacerbated by the hope, upheaval, pain and passion of the Egyptian Revolution and it's aftermath.

In December of 2012, four months after I returned to the US from Egypt, my family and I took a vacation to all three of these countries. Within the span of around two weeks, I visited the three places that were the most formative in my life so far. I saw the beauty of three cultures that I've spent a lot of time thinking about over the years.

These countries are like a family to me. I've loved them, I've fought with them, I've cried over them, I've drifted away and ignored them only to come back again when I needed them.

While it's impossible to summarize each of these incredibly complex places in their entirety and while I'm sure I may misunderstand and inevitably misrepresent them in certain aspects, I want to try my best to share the perspectives I gained on that brief but insightful trip during Christmas of last year.

Origins: The US

The first stage of our family vacation began in Ohio. It was the US state I was born in and where my parents were born in. It's where the bulk of my extended family lives today. My memories of life in this Midwestern US state go back as far as the fourth grade. A saying associated with Ohio is, 'the Middle of It All'. This isn't really a reference to the State's geography but rather to its demographics. It has a fairly even number of rural, suburban and urban communities, Conservative and Liberal leaning communities and a fair number of minority communities. In a sense, it represents the very wide spectrum of American life, and as such, Ohio is often a highly contested State in US presidential elections.

I can't say I was aware of any of this when I lived here as a ten and eleven year old. I can say though, I began to think of this last Christmas as I took a van with my mother, father, two sisters from my grandmother's house on a rainy night from her small suburban Cuyahoga Falls house to the Cleveland airport. We passed row, after row of identical homes with symmetrical lawns. Yet soon passed onto stretches of highways that run past rural grain farms which inevitably expanded into a network of concrete streams in the city of Cleveland.

The US is a large and very diverse country and depending on which state, town, city and street you were raised in, you will undoubtedly have certain outlooks, customs and values that may be completely different from your next door neighbor.

While Thailand and Egypt are diverse as well, you won't find nearly the same same range of social, religious, ethnic and political identities you find in the US. While this variety is a great strength of the US, it makes it hard to understand exactly what US traditions, customs and culture really are.

“It depends” is sometimes the best answer I can give non-Americans when asked what a majority of people in the US believe about one issue or another.

An example of this diversity struck me as we loaded our checked baggage at the Cleveland Airport. A large group of young US navy men and women were standing by several self-check in kiosks a few meters away. They wore the same uniform, spoke the same language and in many ways undoubtedly shared many common values. Yet not a single face or skin tone was quite identical to the other and if one took the time to talk to them individually, I have no doubt you would find a spectrum of hometowns, parents, sexuality politics etc.

While I don't really think of the US as my home (for reasons that will be elaborated on in the next section), and while diversity in the US has and will bring great pains and conflicts, I appreciate my country of origin for what it is: ---A place where you never exactly who will be around the corner or at your door and where your sure to get a montage of opinions in just about every place you go.

Growing Pains: Thailand

When my family and I left the Cleveland airport at around 3:00 in the morning for our grueling flight across the the country and the Pacific, we already knew what we were in for. As kids, my sisters and I had spent a decent portion of our lives on planes making the 16-24 hour journey from one side of the world to the other as we moved continents between Thailand and the US.

That said, the trip was a particularly special one for us. It was the first time we had visited Thailand as a family in nearly six years.

I had heard a lot of things about Thailand and Chiang Mai, the city I grew up in, in the time I had been gone.

Malls and condominiums were popping up everywhere. The school I had gone too as a kid was expanding and possibly moving to a new location. The traffic in my hometown was reaching extraordinary levels once confined to the capital, Bangkok.

I had missed Thailand a lot since graduating from high school in 2006 and moving stateside for college. Still, for most of the six years I was away I had very little desire to go back. Part of this was because I was keen on seeing other parts of the world, especially the Middle East. Yet I was also aware that the small northern city I had known growing up was now going through a growth spurt of its own. I wondered how many of the places and faces I had known as a teenager would be swept away by the inescapable reach of time and development.

As our week passed in Thailand my fears would prove right and wrong at the same time.

My relationship with this Southeast Asian country began four months after my birth in 1988 when my parents moved back to the country to continue their work. My most coherent memories of the country through start from around the age of 11. This was the first time I clearly remember moving continents and it was the first time my entire family had settled down in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

While I can't say my childhood in Thailand was without its ups and downs, I definitely feel as if I had one of the best upbringings imaginable. I went to a good International School, where my teachers, friends and peers came from countries far and near. I had access to a wide palate of food and entertainment options. And finally, through my parents' mission work, I was made very aware at early age about the deep and pervasive suffering many people (refugees, trafficked women, the impoverished and those struggling with stigmatized diseases like HIV) live with around the world.

By many standards, I wasn't as absorbed in Thai culture as other ex-pats or ex-pat children were. I was never very good at Thai, though I can speak it moderately well depending on the situation.

Still, I was readily exposed to a culture that was not strictly speaking my own and inevitably I came to embrace and love Thailand as my true home.

While it's sometimes difficult for other Americans to understand, the US, for most of my young life, was a very distant figure like an estranged parent I was aware of but really didn't know as a father or mother.

Thailand raised me and, after touching down in Bangkok in December I felt as if I was truly coming back to a familial place.

After spending a night in Bangkok we went south to the small town of Bang Sang. After laying around the coast of the Gulf of Thailand we drove back to Bangkok and flew north to our old city.

The changes I had been wary of seeing first hand showed themselves almost immediately. Heavy traffic, construction sites covered with metal and concrete skeletons that would grow in time into large office buildings or malls. It seemed as if every corner of the city had gained a new shopping center, fast-food chain restaurant or upscale cafe.

In six years Chiang Mai had become a boom town and the boom had brought prosperity, but also other kinds of businesses.

The number of go go bars and strip clubs had increased spreading to streets close to my old neighborhood.

These surface changes were all very evident in the first few days. It was a very different city. My sister, Erin, made the comment of how surreal it felt “to be a tourist in one's hometown.”

Yet for the obvious increase in wealth, prosperity and urban sprawl Chiang Mai, and Thailand at its heart remained very much as I remembered.

The people were still as sweet as ever. Though Thai hospitality can be a bit idealized, it's still one of the best aspects of life here. Whether it was the hotel staff, our van drivers, waiters or old friends of our family, it was impossible not to feel welcome. The willingness to open one's self and serve a stranger in any way possible is a great trait for any culture. The philosophies of Jai yen yen (Roughly: Super cool cool) and Mai pen rai (Roughly: No problem), are alive and well making it easy to feel free, safe and comfortable as an outsider.

I had missed this openness and gentle demeanor in the US, where speaking your mind and being opinionated, even if you don't have something valuable to contribute, is very prized. I don't view this aspect of American life as a flaw (necessarily) but it was nice to be back in an environment where people are willing to be more cautious when sharing their feelings and opinions and where pleasing others and ensuring they are not offended is very valued.

I've carried these values with me throughout my adult life and after being gone for so long it was a relief to be around people who appreciated them.

Much had changed on the surface, yet Thailand is still Thailand and while there are many things about life in this country that are undoubtedly negative, it's a place that always has an open door to walk through and where life's pace seems resembles a lengthy stroll and not and an intense, competitive marathon as in the US.

After spending a few days beating around our old stomping grounds, meeting friends from the old days of high school, and sampling old albeit slightly altered tastes and smells, it was hard to get on a plane and fly to the third and last continent of the journey.

A New World: Egypt

Anyone who has read some of my Facebook posts and my novel 'The Struggler' knows that I've written a lot about Egypt over the last three years.

While my relationship with the US and Thailand is best defined as a parental one, Egypt is a different but no less intimate category.

Egypt, was for a time, like a love of my life. It may be a bit of an odd term to use, but at one point I would have gladly given up everything to stay with the country, in essence, marry it.

Like many infatuations between the ages of 22 and 25 though, this was a relationship that sadly didn't work out as planned.

There is and will always be a piece of me that belongs to the country, and more and more I am committing myself to going back for short visits.

Yet, I doubt I can ever live there again, at least not under the work and social conditions I was under.

As uneasy as I had been at times about going back to Thailand, I was more nervous about returning to Egypt.

My first experience with the country was as a college student in 2009. I had had a long standing fascination with the Middle East, Muslims and Arab cultures, stretching as far back as late high-school.
My first time being the region only served to wet my appetite.

As soon as I was done with college in 2010, I moved back to Cairo. I soon rented my first apartment in a middle class Cairo neighborhood and started my first professional job as a English copy writer/editor at a graphic design company.

Like so many people around my age in the US, I was starting my life as an independent adult, trying to navigate a world away from a University campus. I was also starting it in a new country who's language I hadn't mastered, which I had only experienced for a few months and was working in a field I hadn't really trained for.

Needless to say, I had a few rough months in the beginning. I felt overworked, unsure of what I was doing and unable to feel like I was truly fitting into my new office.

Thankfully, with good friends, colleagues and an Arabic course I began to carve a niche in the massive urban center of Cairo.

About six months after I had arrived for a two year stay, I was feeling confident about my decision to pursue my dream of living in the Middle East. I was loving the culture, developing friendships, and seeing if I could pursue further studies in a part of the world I had been intrigued by for so long.

Egypt was beginning to feel like home. Then, on January 25th 2011, the country I was just getting used to turned upside down.

I had read about the protests of course, but like most Egyptians, I thought very little of it until the streets burst at the seems with people.

Within a span of a few weeks I saw Egyptian friends and colleagues transform into activists and protesters, rushing down to the central square in Cairo to protest against their authoritarian president of 30 years.

When he resigned and his government fell, I like so many people in Egypt and around the world cheered and cried. It was a miraculous event to see firsthand. Hundreds of thousands of people from across the social spectrum, marching peacefully, united in a common cause and seeming to succeed against all the predictions of doom and gloom.

After the 11th of February, Egypt went from being a place of interest to a place I truly fell in love with it.

I followed the upheavals, twists and turns passionately, defending it through dark times as the transition period became messier and bloodier. I wrote over a hundred facebook notes, published articles and went to close to a dozen protests. I came close on several occasions to fighting between police and demonstrators but I kept going, believing through each horrendous new street battle or massacre that the Revolution would prevail and Egypt would get the government they deserved.

Sadly, I soon found I had burned myself out and disillusioned. The chaos, the ongoing bloodshed, estrangement from friends, problems with a girl I loved and growing discontent with my job sent me into a spiral that I can say nearly destroyed me.

Towards the beginning of the summer of 2012, I left my job, Cairo and my social circle and moved to an isolated Coptic retreat center along the desert highway between Alexandria and Cairo. I spent three months at this gorgeous place, writing the bulk of my next novel, teaching English to the staff and performing various chores that included, lifting bricks, chasing donkeys, gutting raw chickens and climbing trees to harvest mangoes.

It was a very great time for me. A time that ultimately came to an end when visa issues convinced me to leave the country and return Stateside.

It was decision I took with a lot of guilt and one which was still haunting me as our Etihad Airlines flight glided over the dust stained brick buildings of greater Cairo.

It was as if I were returning to a lover I had split with and was bringing my family along for the awkward ride.

Our time there, though, was far more therapeutic than I could have hoped for.

We would spend the bulk of out time on the Red Sea and at the Anafora Retreat Center I had volunteered at during my last few weeks in the country.

Being in all these places quickly immersed me in the things I loved so much about Egypt. Unlike Thailand, where emotion is often tucked away or repressed behind courteous smiles, Egyptians have no qualms about expressing their energy. In fact, it's often expected.

While Thai hospitality is submissive and distant, Egyptian hospitality is embracing and in your face. Rather than opening a door and inviting you in, you're often dragged in (sometimes against your will) with loud and bombastic voice ringing in your ear.

The energy of Egyptians is infectious as is there desire for a hearty laugh and a joke.

It's a complicated country as well, filled with contradictions. A passionate endorsement by an Egyptian for a politician one moment can be followed by a tirade that a day later for his opponent. To Western eyes, this every shifting interest and energy may seem hypocritical. Perhaps, it is. But my experience has taught me that Egyptians are a people of passion. When they are angry they are truly angry. Happy, truly happy, sad truly despondent. Passion infuses everything they do...except perhaps, if it's adhereing to a strict timetable or work schedule.

The code of Inshallah (God Willing) and Malesh (No problem) are very similar to the Thai creeds of Jai yen yen and Mai pen rai.

History, is also ever present. No matter where you go, whether the log jammed streets of Cairo, the deserts around Hurghada or the quiet breezy paths in rural Anafora, the sense of history (made and in the making) is all around you. Posters supporting or decrying Mohamed Morsi are plastered on the surfaces of hundred year old buildings in Downtown Cairo. The Pyramids of Giza stand vigilant over the urban super sprawl of the capital city that threatens to swallow it up.

My family and I thoroughly enjoyed being there, even though it was impossible not to me reminded of the political crisis at certain times.

For all the shortcomings and violence Egypt's Revolution and aftermath has brought, a part of me will always remain in love with her, she is what she is beautiful, chaotic and timeless.

Full Circle: America Again

After departing Cairo just after the new year, our family had a long and delayed filled journey returning to the US. A later arrival for our flight in Amman forced us to miss our Chicago flight to Cleveland. We spent a rainy night in a motel by the airport before heading out for another flight the next morning.

This flight was delayed as well because of a technical failure, forcing us to arrive even later at a snow drenched Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

As we took the van back to my grandmother's place, I reflected that we had, literally, come full circle. We had circled the world in just under two weeks flying from the US to Asia, to Africa and Middle East again.

Seeing all three of these places in such a short period of time reminded me of how close each was to me and how much they have taught me about life and brought me where I am today.

They all have their flaws, as all countries and the people who make them up do. Yet I appreciate each in their own right and look forward to discovering more about them and other places around the globe in the years to come.

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