A trip to developing Asian countries is an opportunity to have gratitude for the privilege of being born in a developed country, and for reflection on what modernity has pushed aside. Modernity, with its focus on progress, and all things new, has pushed aside tradition, ancient ways of living, non-secular ritual, and the primacy of the extended family. It can be argued this was necessary to make space for innovation and progress, but some in developing countries who cherish their traditions, wonder aloud, is life better off this way? What will remain distinct about my way of life, and my country, once it has transformed into some version of America?
In Myanmar, I visited a village where I was told that elderly people are still treated with respect. They are the holders of wisdom. When they say something, everyone listens, and those that don’t listen, feel the wrath of the village. In such villages, everyone is responsible for looking after the elderly. A young man told me that the government now wants to get into the business of looking after the elderly. He made the statement with some apprehension as to whether this was a good thing. I am not sure googling how we in the West look after the elderly would do much to address his concerns. In some ways, we do a great deal for the elderly. In other ways, we diminish their importance and isolate them. It is a cliche to say that Asians are much more group and family oriented than the Western focus on youthful, skinny, energetic, individuals, but there is also something to that Asian cliche. As much as some would say the big cities in Asia are no different than the West, the issue still bears reflection.
Also in Myanmar, I had a discussion with a young lady who converted from Islam to Buddhism. She made the statement to me that Buddhism was different for her than other people, because she learned Buddhism from a book, while others learned it from their parents. When you learn from your parents you learn ritual and customs that have been integrated from many traditions over thousands of years. Those traditions and customs may be different from village to village. This can be true in any part of the world, not just Asia. The fact that it can be true becomes much clearer and conscious when you see it in other cultures. All over SE Asia, India, and Nepal there are many devoutly religious people, perhaps with the exception of communist Vietnam, where the percentage that identify as religious is small. Of course, what you identify as can be a function of what is popular or even permissible. One subject of debate I observed some tourists having with a couple of tradition-minded Indians, was whether the number of people who identify as homosexual will increase or not, now that it is legal to be homosexual in India. We shall see.
You have to remember to choose your words carefully around strongly religious people, always respecting where you are, and who they are. This was something I was out of practice doing, having worked in tech for so long. In the California tech world, or at least my anecdotal experiences, you have to choose your words carefully when talking to strongly atheistic people, of which there are many. Who is right or wrong, strongly religious or strongly atheistic people? I am not sure liberty and tolerance care. Some perspective on reason and life might.
Wood is burned everywhere. Cooking is done with wood in many places. Rubbish is burned. The refuge from harvests is burned. If you are not comfortable with the ever present sight and smell of fires, developing Asia is not for you. Some of the ladies in Asia would even say they get their best cooking results from wood, hay, or charcoal fires. There is of course a romanticism about burning things, especially wood. A romanticism that is easily indulged in the West around a once in a blue moon campfire. When many people, within increasingly dense areas, are burning things, smoke becomes a little less romantic.
Do no harm? Maybe it’s ok to defend yourself? I tried to have this philosophical conversation with a Punjabi man who came from a family where many generations of men had been in the military. In the parts of North India I visited, cows that had past their productive years were left unattended to walk the streets, dogs lay stiff on the road, and people fed pigeons. Do no harm, even to the terminally ill, and every animal has a right to food. So can you ever kill anything? What about when you are attacked by invading armies? Well of course you kill someone who is attacking you, the Punjabi man proudly said. Hmmm, may be there are nuances to this compassion and kindness thing. I will meditate on that (no seriously).
Rice is everywhere in Asia. I became used to eating rice with every meal. That is a good thing to get used to. Easy on the stomach as well, especially helpful when the stomach is not well. Bamboo is everywhere in SE Asia, but not as ever-present in India. Countries that have to manage tens or hundreds of different ethnic groups is common. Western colonial powers sucked, everyone agrees on that. Though, apparently the ancient empires and local skirmishes were, relatively speaking, ok, and hey, at least when the colonial powers were thrown out in SE Asia, they were replaced with something much better: communism and military rule. Of course, what price can you place on freedom? I am optimistic about the long term trajectory though. When a SE Asian person says to you “It will be cold there, you better bring a warm jacket”, my advise is to wear a T-shirt and bring a fan. I am not sure most people in SE Asia know what cold feels like (tongue-in-cheek, of course I understand that relative to the hot summers, the temperatures in winter feel cold to SE Asians – it is all relative).
In a modern world, you forget what it means to live on the water. I was reminded. The rivers and lakes are places where clothes get washed, people fish for survival, and waste gets dumped. That waste is increasingly non-biodegradable. Even a hydroelectric plant can pollute a river way. Cows are said to be sacred because they are one of the only known animals where human children can live on their milk. It is no wonder that rivers are also sacred. They are so much a part of life. We hold sacred those things which are critically important to us. Is a smart phone as sacred in modern life as cow’s milk was in the ancient world? I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.
It was great to see Ho Chi Minh lying in state. The old guy looks pretty dang good for his age, especially given he has been dead since 1969. It was actually kind of cool to see. Unfortunately, cameras were banned. I guess it would be disrespectful anyway. Embalming national heroes is a practice common in Communist countries, but there is no religion in these countries, just nationalism, 10 people die every minute in India. Cremation is probably more practical than embalming everyone in perpetuity. Saw many cremations in India, but no photos, that would be disrespectful. A cremation is an interesting sight. Again with the smoke. Fire purifies all. Long multi-day ceremony / practice, an extended family affair, a paid person to tender to the fire to keep the body burning evenly, and then at the end, the ashes are returned to a (sacred) river; the circle of life continues. I think many Westerners would find this approach to death inconvenient and uncomfortable on many dimensions. Who has time for a ceremony like this? There is an old meditation saying: if you don’t think you have time to meditate for 20 minutes a day, you should meditate for an hour. Maybe it is the same with the passing of loved ones.
The other day I went for a walk in the Californian town I live in. When my mind returned from wandering, I noticed I was walking on the road. In many places of developing Asia, you have no choice, there are no footpaths per se, and when there are, there are scooters parked on them. At first, walking on the edge of the road, and crossing streets, can be unnerving. One night, I was out exploring Siem Reap by myself and was not paying enough attention. I ended up getting hit in my right bicep by a passing car, I think it was a side mirror, which must have been collapsable, otherwise my arm would be in worse shape. So yeah, pay attention and be careful, especially when you get to that nonchalant phase. But you do get used to it, perhaps you may even begin to like it when you have been doing it for long enough. You may even start to think it is normal. Such is the mind’s reaction to habit.
What is a national border. I am not sure. Borders seemed to have changed on a regular basis in Asia, with each successive imperial expansion. One year it was the Myanmar empire, the next the Cambodians, then the Vietnamese and the Thai. Chinese and Mongolians too. Some short bursts from the Japanese. As for the Brits and the French…Yeah, borders have been these things that come and go over time. And don’t even get me started on the difference between a country and a nation. But that is a blog for another time.
Many great monuments. Visiting one 10-11th century temple in Bagan Myanmar, I was told of a king who would chop the fingers of a worker off, if the bricks were not laid close enough to each other, per the style of that time. I was reminded that people who are passionate about their grand visions can be quite cruel to others in pursuing them. In modern times, Steve Jobs bears the distinction of being considered a genius at what he did, but also someone who was a little short on the kindness thing. I think we can all agree that chopping people’s fingers off when they do not execute as desired, is probably not the way to go. What Jobs did? Well, there may still be people of good will who continue to debate that. Is there a choice in life between being kind to the point of embracing mediocrity, or on the other hand being very demanding in ways people do not appreciate? Ahh, my trip to Asia did not resolve that question. Something else to meditate on. All I know for sure is I don’t want to live in a country where someone has absolute power. Long live liberal democracy – don’t get your expectations up, but at least you can correct really screwed up stuff at the next election.
No surprise, perhaps with the exception of Thailand, SE Asia countries are becoming the economic colonies of China. Hi, I’m from Beijing, and I’m here to help. What did you say, you need a loan, some engineers, and a construction crew for that infrastructure project? No problem, just sign here. We’ve got this. Really hope you can pay back the money on time, and if you can’t, well let’s just call it a win-win situation.
Multiple people have asked me what was the best part of the trip. I never have an answer. I am not sure there is an answer. I could say the temples / stupas of Bagan, Myanmar, or the long boats in Thailand with car engines on them, the beauty of Ha Long Bay Vietnam, the evening pray ceremony in Varanasi, camping on the Ganges, tasting moonshine Cobra snake whiskey in Laos, the “Tomb Raider” temple in Siem Reap, the safari in Nepal, the food, no really, the food, or any number of other things. But I have to say, it is the journey. 8 countries in 2 months. Packing / unpacking every (other) day, moving from one place to another, buses, coaches, overnight trains, planes, cars, boats, ox, and bamboo rafts; long days of touring, every day a new experience. It is hard work, it is full of densely packed experiences, and unpacking all of that may take some time. It is not like sitting on a beach, and then popping your head up long enough to do something different, or see something amazing. It is definitely the journey. Setting out to do something, all the hard work, disappointments, surprises, setbacks, triumphs, and ultimately, the finishing of what you started. The best thing, is every thing. Everything is part of the journey. Yeah, for sure, the best thing, is the journey – which is why there is no summary at the beginning of this article. Sometimes, you have to take the journey, don’t cheat yourself of the best part.
Best wishes to you on your journey.