Thailand needs to be more critical about Thailand

<Note: It took me a while to write this post about Thailand. I’ve never written about my hometown because I don’t think I know enough about it, but the recent bombing incited a nagging thought that I’ve had about Thailand for a long time now. So here goes.>

Last week, a bomb detonated in the heart of Chidlom district, a busy area with lots of foreigners, especially those from China. The incident, a shocking and tragic act of terrorism, left Bangkokians stunned and flustered. Many wondered who was heartless enough to commit such a barbaric act. True to the Thai compassion, many offered help, whether through blood donation, acting as a translator or offering free food and transportation to the relatives of those injured or deceased in the bombing. The outpouring of support was uplifting, yet I was left with an uneasy feeling at the depth of the conversations that took place afterwards.

You see, I think Thailand isn’t critical enough about Thailand. Now, let me say upfront that as someone who had studied abroad since middle school, I have been jaded with Thai politics and stopped following it for quite some time now. Since I didn’t spend my most formative  years in Thailand and was heavily influenced by Western values, my lack of ‘Thainess’ perhaps means that I’m not in the best position to critique Thailand. But whatever Thainess that’s left in me is making me concerned about the country that I was born in.

People used to know of Thailand as a peaceful, compassionate, relaxing, and smiley country. After all, we are (was?) The Land of Smiles. We used to embody this moniker. We used to always (well, not always, but more often than now)  be in a good mood and we used to really look out for one another. While examples of the Thai goodwill can still be seen from time to time, we really weren’t the nation we once was. Alas, as Thailand continued to open its arm to foreign tourists as well as investments, we also brought in the Western model of capitalism based on materialism and the incessant race for more. Shopping malls started appearing all around Bangkok, seemingly without end. As more money and people flowed in, the lucky few who had the means and the business know-how started restaurants, bars, high-rises, massage parlors, and sports clubs to cater to the increased wealth amongst the Thai elites and expatriates.

The influx of wealth was never distributed equally. The income disparity in Thailand continued to grow at an alarming rate. Our obedience has made it really easy for the elites to rip us off, pay us piss-poor wages while pocketing the majority of the wealth. Thais, along with the rest of the world, became more absorbed in this race for more–and more self-centered in the process. Nowadays, we are infinitely more conscious about our social image; our happiness is increasingly being defined by others. Ironically, as we become more concerned about our social status, we have been really focused on making sure we are enjoying our lives and never really stopped to question the status quo. Why do the poor remain poor? Why is there so much crime? Why is women still not getting equality in the workplace?

Part of the blame can be attributed to the Thai system of hierarchy based on seniority. We are taught not to question those older than us, and to be submissive to authority; they always know better. Teachers who have taught Thai students know them for their reticence. Even when students don’t understand what’s being taught, they are afraid to ask questions. Or if they disagree with what the teacher says, they mostly keep their opinions to themselves. (This is perhaps the single most infuriating habit in Thailand. It drives me insane.) Consequently, in various education rankings worldwide, Thailand performs very poorly. Students are taught how to memorize, but not how to think critically.

Thais today seem more engaged in the celebrities’ personal lives than the state of their city or government. We love learning about who’s dating who and what this celebrity has been up to lately, but why are we not as fired up about the media censorship in this country or the number of homeless people in Bangkok?

Nobody knows why Bangkok was targeted for the blast. Many people were engaged in the discussions/speculations of suspects, but what was lacking was a higher level of discussion around the state of Thailand today that I felt the bombing should have prompted. What got Thailand to the point where we have become a bomb target? Why are we facing such heavy criticism from the international community? Why is Thai politics perpetually in flux?

My point is this: Considering the state of Thailand, why are we not more pissed off? Unless we become more engaged in civic issues, we all will have to watch as other well-prepared countries pass us by as we descend into further chaos.

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On Impermanence and Death, aka Life

My eyes have been bothering me a long time. They would be perpetually dry and irritable. I would also occasionally get styes. My doctor finally gave me a diagnosis: MGD—Meibomian Gland Dysfunction. Another day, another acronym to remember.

While not life-threatening, the symptoms of MGD are very bothersome, especially because it worsens when I’m in front of a computer for extended periods of time. Lucky for me, that’s exactly what I do at work. However—you can call this unlucky, but it really isn’t, there is no cure. In other words, I would have to live with this disturbance for the rest of my life. Doctors say MGD is often only found in people over 50 years old. I haven’t made 25, and my oil Meibomian glands are already completely blocked, and 60% of my tear ducts are already gone—a severe case of dry eyes. The กุ้งยิง I’m getting are the consequences of these clogged glands becoming infected. My doctor told me: “This case happened at one of your glands. The other 200 of them are like ticking time bombs.”

Great.

In the moment I was given this diagnosis, I initially felt angry. Yet, surprisingly, soon after an air of calmness descended upon me. I felt resigned… no, that’s not the right word. I felt… at peace with the things I cannot change. (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”) Our manifestation in the physical realm is so delicate, and its fragility and the cycle of degeneration, death and renewal is a truth that we all are too familiar with. The diseases that we get are simply an integral piece of this cycle. Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape the impermanence of life. The temporal boundaries of reality are yet to be overcome, and I personally believe it is foolish to try to do just that.

After learning about my MGD, my thoughts started to drift towards the idea of death—a usual subject visited by my brain. I think I’ve already blogged about death multiple times, but I’m going to write about it again.  I’ve never understood why so many of us fear death. What does death represent? The end of fun? A missed opportunity? An unfulfilled life?

I once wanted to live a long life, but I can’t remember when the last time I felt that way was. In fact, I could sense that my time here on earth may be limited. Buddhists are taught that to be ready for and mindful of the possibility of death at any given moment, and thus we are all advised to lead honest and compassionate lives at all times. In addition to the kindness in our everyday interactions, what is important to me too is a life driven by meaning, a life well-examined, and a life defined by selflessness and dedicated to the greater good. While I have not made any impact on the scale I demand of myself, I know that if I die now, I can rest knowing that I have put in my effort to challenge the status quo defined by the discord between the soul and the systems that we have created. Furthermore, I can die knowing that I have made progress in the self-examination of my existence. Have I found an answer? Have my life created enough worth? No, not even close. However, it may not matter so much if one starts to realize the ripple effects of small acts of goodwill that can occur daily. Once one can overcome the need for self-validation (see We Do Not All Have to Shine) through tangible outcomes, then death is not to be feared; it can be embraced as a potent reminder of the tremendous opportunity we are given, otherwise known as life.

Ultimately, when we talk about impermanence and death, we are in fact talking about life; they are all intertwined. We are talking about the undeniable truths of life and how we should embrace every single breathing moment that we have to make this life worthwhile in a way that you define it. (Though I must add a caveat that your way of life must not be infringing on others’ same unalienable rights to life or else you face my wrath.)

I will never forget Steve Jobs’ words:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Is Your Family More Important Than The Planet?

(Also cross-posted to Medium.com)

An online course I took on the state of higher education in the USA introduced me to the popular online lecture series called Justice by Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard University. Originally intended to show a refreshing approach to online education, I also took some fascination from the content. We were asked to watch Episode 11, entitled “The Claims of Community.” In this episode, Sandel had the students debate the “obligations of solidarity and membership.”

The full 1-hour is worth the watch if you have the time, but I’ll briefly describe the most intriguing part according to my own lens. Competing obligations may arise based on our memberships in different communities. How do you choose which is more important? The debate ventured into this very question. A student suggested that we can view ourselves as ultimately a member of the human community, and this most universal community should take precedent over the smaller spheres of solidarity, such as the country or the university you belong to. Another student objected, claiming that he can as easily choose the most specific of his obligations — for instance, his family first, followed by his town and then his country. Should one’s loyalty lie more with a community where one interacts with more frequently, intimately or with more obvious reciprocity? Sandel posed a fascinating question: “Is patriotism a virtue, or a prejudice for one’s own kind?”

Many students seemed drawn to the notion that due to the closer connection — let’s call it kinship — that one feels to the smaller communities that one belong to, they would be more inclined to act in favor of these small units over the larger/more universal identities. A student named Dan gave a common example: If he saw his roommate cheat on a problem set, he would not turn his roommate in despite knowing that cheating is not the right thing to do. A more public example given by Sandel is the story of Billy Bulger, then the President of the University of Massachusetts, refusing to reveal information about his brother, Whitey Bulger, a gang leader who wreaked havoc on the Massachusetts community. Many students seemed to agree with Dan and Billy Bulger; the more immediate community prevails.

This provoked me to think about whether this is the basis of the climate crisis. Many people believe that their obligations to the units of family and community take precedent over their obligations as a homo sapien. In fact, this tends to be the prevailing belief of our time. Is this wrong? I don’t have an answer to this question, but what I do know is that it is understandable for someone to feel this way. The physical association and the intimacy one feels as part of a smaller community are so much more palpable than the connection one has with humans from a different continent for example. However, we must admit that the connection is there, whether through global trade, the flow of money across borders, or the limited collective resources. I’ll give an example. Let’s go back assume that this was before the shale gas boom in the US, where the American lifestyle was heavily dependent on foreign oil. If OPEC decides to stop selling oil to the US, the American lifestyle would be severely disrupted. One could then argue that Americans owe a large part of their livelihood from foreign oil. Did Americans feel a sense of solidarity with the OPEC countries back in those days? They probably felt the opposite. My point is that these global connections are less palpable than the physical connections, but they are there nonetheless. Even more obscure than the foreign oil example would be the sweatshops that your clothes are manufactured in or the classic climate change dilemma — the impact of your greenhouse gas emissions on your fellow beings.

I personally believe it is dangerous to hold your moral obligation to your family and your country to be more important than your responsibility as a human. Many people take the resources that Earth offers for granted. They believe they have a right to these resources. What they fail to recognize is that people are using more than their fair share of resources. In fact, the Earth Overshoot Day this year is on August 13 — a week earlier than in 2014. This day keeps getting earlier and earlier. Currently, as you read this, we are borrowing — no, stealing — resources from the future generations.

For mankind to make any meaningful progress on the climate crisis, people must start to ask “To what do we owe this planet?” And the answer is a whole lot. Technology can only successfully mitigate climate change insofar as the moral crisis is averted. This would take nothing short of a revolution in the hearts and mind of the people — our livelihood, our thought process, and our understanding of the interconnectedness of our planet. In fact — dare I say it — the planet has to become as — if not more — important as one’s family.

Is this achievable? I’m not so optimistic. But perhaps there is no need to distinguish between one’s duty to the planet and the family. I feel great solidarity with the tiny community of people that are working to usher in this new paradigm of consciousness; they are my family. Judging by the conversations I’ve had with this community, many of them are so passionate about their work because they are deeply concerned about the well-being of their grandchildren. So the choice between familial obligation and environmentalism is perhaps a false distinction. Neither is more important than the other. They are one and the same — the obligation to sustain the well-being of all generations of mankind.