Sunday, October 26, 2014

5 Things History Has Taught Me

I'm a lover and student of history. It's a subject I've always found fascinating. To me the greatest aspect of history can be found in dissecting the word itself. History originates from 'his story' and that's what it is; the story of humanity. This story is often bloody, complicated and, of course, revealing. Besides the old addage, 'History, repeats itself', I've learned much about humanity by studying our story. In this post I'd like to share five revelations I've experienced and hopefully help others gain a new perspective. 

1) No One is Innocent: Everyone Has Blood on Their Hands

Cherokee forcibly evicted from their homes by US soldiers during the 'Trail of Tears'.

I figured I'd start with a dark one. Now by everyone I don't mean every individual human who has lived, breathed, cried, eaten and died since time began. By everyone I mean every country, nation, ethnic group, race, tribe, religion, political movement etc. Pretty much any larger identity that a person can belong to has committed some sort of atrocity against another group of people at some point. Whether your black or white, Arab or Han-Chinese, Christian or Buddhist, American or Chadian, Marxist or Conservative someone or a group of someones who looked like you, spoke your language, or believed what you believe killed, displaced or otherwise ruined the lives of a significant number of people at some point. As dark and as depressing a realization as that might be, I can't help but feel that there would be a lot less hatred and finger-pointing between different types of people if everyone knew of at least one atrocity their 'people' committed.

2) Each Generation Lives in the Present and Believes its Struggles Are the Hardest

This may be especially true of the time I'm living in now. Our technology allows instant access to information about every disaster around the world. However, reading history reveals that whenever a group of people encounter disaster they view it purely in the present without reflecting on past events of a similar nature. This is either due to a lack of knowledge  about the past or just the Presentism we humans seem to easily embrace. In my time I've seen revolutions break out, wars erupt and natural disasters sweep away whole towns. Watching cable news you might think that this was the first time any of these things have occurred. The panic, speculation and fear conveys that. 

3) Many of Today's Problems Have Been With Us Since the Beginning

We may live in the present and believe our problems to be unique. But more or less the problems we face today have confronted people again and again since we stopped hunting mammoths and started plowing fields. War and conflict, hunger and poverty, disease and natural disaster. Humans have been there and done that many times. Before Ebola, there was Spanish Influenza before that the Black Death. Technology may have advanced, societies may have changed significantly but we still wrestle with the same issues that the Romans and Egyptians did.

4) People and Cultures Have Always Mixed and Influenced Each Other

This may be especially true of the time I'm living in now. Globalization is a hot term in the 21st century. The world truly is smaller, thanks to technology, and people of different cultural and national backgrounds are sharing ideas and interacting on a unprecedented level. However, even though the scale of this salad bowl is new, people of different backgrounds have always mingled and borrowed from one another. The Western world got its numerals from the Arabs, who got it from the Indians. Tonkatsu, a Japanese dish, was influenced by the fried food of Portugese merchant sailors who made contact with Japan in the 16th century. The design of many mosques with their domes and minarets was inspired by Orthodox churches encountered by Muslims in the early days of their great conquests. America's Democracy was influenced in the ideas of British and, to a lesser extent, French philosophers. It wasn't just technology, art and culture that was exchanged though. People shared themselves as well. The study of human genetics has revealed, not too suprisingly, that cross-cultural relationships are nothing new either. This makes notions of nationalism and racism particularly hollow. Go far enough back we're all connected to each other.

 5Humans Want to Be Distinct and Our Nature Has Never Really Changed

Despite our mingling and shared genetics, people have always drawn up boundaries around themselves so that they could be unique. The human animal is unique in that we desire a higher esoteric meaning for our lives. We have the same instincts as other creatures: Gain food, find or make shelter and reproduce to make sure our species continues. Yet we also want our lives to have extra meaning outside of those basic needs. We crave a unique identity that gives us this meaning. Often we find this special identity in our cultures, our race, our nationalities, our sexuality, our religion anything. And we also desire love and a sense of belonging. No matter where and when in the world you look people are people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Brief Jaunt to Laos

I started the journey by bus. I left Chiang Mai later than expected because of a delay in picking another fellow traveler up. We spent the bulk of the day in a minibus driving through rural Thailand. It's a part of Thailand I don't see very often when I'm teaching, even if the majority of people in this country live away from big cities like Chiang Mai.

 However, when you cross the border into Laos, rural becomes RURAL. Laos is a much smaller country in terms of population, and it's been far more isolated economically than it's more populated southern neighbor. It's a bit surreal but for two countries so similar to each other in language and culture, Thailand and Laos are almost twenty years apart in their level of development and globalization. Laos is still in many ways a wild and wooly place much as large parts of Thailand were in the 80s. Taking the boat from the border at Chang Khong to Luang Prabang makes you very aware of this. As our boat propelled itself along through the Mekong, trees were plentiful but people and towns were not. The few communities we saw had houses made entirely of wood, something which I almost never see in Thailand where even rural communities are making houses out of concrete.

 Traveling along the river was like seeing a different world. I say that for two main reasons. First, In an age where human consumption has destroyed so many pristine forests and where Mother Nature domain has receded in the face of human expansion it was comforting to see so much untapped greenery. Granted, much of Laos is being tapped now with China investing in development and more and more deforestation occurring. We saw many large lumber barges, filled with felled logs, heading up and down the river.

 It was also a different world because of the people we did see along the river. The sinewy men working on the lumber barges, the almost nude children who waved and cheered at us as we moved along. The women who sat in the engine room at the back of the boat behind all of the foreign tourists. We saw their world, and perhaps you could say they got a glimpse of ours. But we were truly separated from them. Not just by the water, not just by the meter or so wood between our sitting area and theirs. We were separated by our place in the lottery, the one which decides which universe you will be born into. The world with suburban houses, education and health-care, and access to the latest apple products or the world of grated tin roofs, isolated towns where the nearest school and hospital can be a day or two's walk, and where you spend your days working with your hands and sweat. How strange we seemed to each other I thought as I boy waved incessantly at me.

 Among the fellow sojourners on my boat, there were great discussions and great encounters. I enjoy the company of other travelers more than I used to. The way travelers interact with one another is pretty representative of most relationships we have in life. People come together for a time and share a period of their lives together. Sometimes, bonds are formed. Other times they aren't. But we share ourselves with one another for time.

 After two days, our river-faring days came to a close. We docked, I grabbed a tuk-tuk near the shore and we spent twenty minutes or so weaving through pot-hole peppered roads to reach the edge of the Old City of Luang Prabang. The Old City is one of my favorite places. There's an elegance here that I've never felt anywhere else in the region. Old villas, a fusion of French and Southeast Asian design, dominate the wide clean boulevards. What's even more beautiful is the way these old homes reside harmoniously with the historic Buddhist temples and the small shops and homes where you can see ordinary people cleaning and drying meat and peppers or boiling rice for their daily meals. There's harmony here, a balance between East and West, urban an rural that I doubt you can find anywhere else. I know I'm idealizing it, I'm sure there are flaws with this little corner of the world but honestly I have a hard time seeing them.

 After checking into my riverside guesthouse, I had every intention of taking it easy. I had been to the city before and seen all the sights I wanted to. This time, I had come to relax, read and edit and Luang Prabang was the perfect place to do it all. I got plenty of quiet time, but I had no idea that my visit coincided with Boun Ok Phansa. This festival, celebrated throughout Laos, marks the end of Buddhist Lent and also pays respect to the rains. It's reminiscent of Thailand's Loi Krathong but has unique traditions. There were boat races for several days held on the Mekong river, a lot of Karaoke and much drinking of the national brew Beer Lao.

 The highlight of the festival though was the procession of floats through the Old City. Teams of people, representing local businesses villages and schools lined up along Luang Prabang's main street. Together they carried beautifully made floats to the river where they were released into the water. I was part of dozens of foreign and local onlookers who watched as the floats, many shaped like mythical water dragons and decorated with burning candles, were carried to a temple to be blessed. The fanfare around each float varied. Some teams walked ahead of their boat quietly, carrying paper lanterns. Others danced banging cymbals and drums as they sang and chanted. Kom Lois, paper air-balloons, littered the skies. Small floats made of banana tree and leaf filled the Mekong river. And the temples and villas were brightly decorated with candles and lanterns laid out in elegant patterns.

 I've seen a number of festivals in this part of the world. Yet I can say with some certainty this procession was by far my favorite holiday in Southeast Asia.

 After the festival my last couple of days in the city were quiet and uneventful. I finished my editing, read Khaled Hosseini's latest book  and tried my best to trudge through the last few chapters of The Brother's Karamazov. I also ate more than an advisable quantity of French pastries. Soon it was time to leave the small elegant corner of the world and try my best to get back into my Chiang Mai working mentality.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Grading and the Not So Magical Book of Numbers

It's the end of term. Its the time of the year where our students' work is summed up in a book of grades and scores. This book, this grading book; it's a nice looking book. It has a slick green cover and it's encased in pure, immaculate, machine refined plastic. The inside is quite nice as well.  It's pristine and white on the inside. And the students names are printed in neat black rows with a double digit number beside it. What does this number represent you ask? Well, according to someone they show how much the student has progressed throughout the year. I say someone because this person who tells me and my fellow teachers the magical value of these numbers is someone I don't know. I imagine they are sitting in an office somewhere, one which I would imagine is larger than mine. I also know that they say my value and the value of my students are determined by them.

 It's easy to see how one might think that, yet I must disagree with this deification of the grade book numbers. They have value. I don't dispute that. But they don't show everything. They don't show the grit, and they don't show the toil. The numbers give no indication of what gathering those scores meant. The numbers don't show the commotion or the chaos that goes on inside the classroom with a class of thirty eight. They don't show you the anarchy that comes when bright students, average students and students with severe learning disabilities are all thrown together in the same room for fifty minutes at a time. The numbers don't tell you how many hours we might have spent planning an activity only to have it completely fall apart because the kids didn't listen, didn't care or were too hyped up on sugar to be able to notice.

 The numbers don't let you hear the yelling of the teachers trying desperately to keep order and the even louder cries of the students talking and playing in the midst of class. They don't show how we spent hours listening to kids try and whisper out a few words in English so we could translate them into two digits on paper and present them to you. It doesn't show you how many class periods we gave up teaching our students so we could test them...which is always more than we teachers would like. Nor does it show you how many times are classes were canceled or interrupted without warning because of a sports day rehearsal or a visit by the dentist. The numbers don't show the children's home lives. Those with fathers who ignore them. Those with mothers who go out to clubs rather then spend time with them. The cousins, brothers and sisters who all live with them together under a grandparent's roof. These numbers in our grade books, those that range from fifty to one hundred.. Yes, they speak for themselves but they don't speak for us. Student or teacher, no person can be so succinctly summed up.