As an avid traveler, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of encountering a new “culture” when living or traveling in a new country. Living in Thailand is there something called Thai culture that I’m surrounded by and need to adapt to? Or are the people here as likely to be similar or different than people I encounter in my own country. More and more I’m inclined toward the latter view, that the idea of some sort of unifying Thai, American, Nepalese or Icelandic “culture” is largely an illusion.
The thing is, while traveling the world and living in a number of foreign countries (including Japan, Spain, Vietnam and Thailand) I often meet people who are a lot like myself. They like to travel, spend time with their friends and family members, read books, see films, eat good food and often think about how they can work less than they do. Of course, I also often meet people who feel really different from me but when that happens I think it has close to nothing to do with their “culture” or their nationality. (Also, as long as they’re not hurting anyone I never think the differences are a bad thing.)
I’ve noticed that two really high impact predictors of how much I’ll have in common with someone (whatever part of the world they’re from) is 1) their education and 2) what they do for a living. I hasten to add that this definitely doesn’t mean that I match only with people who have a graduate education and who are entrepreneurs. By education I mean that I see more knowledge and smarter thinking as the primary path to a better life. And by professional area I mean that I make a living using my mind and the knowledge that I have. If someone else sees the source of a better life as their government, or their religion or their family, I generally tend not to match with them (and that’s true whether I’m in the middle of America or the middle of Southeast Asia). And if they make a living with their hands or their bodies, whether building condominiums or selling flowers (like the merchants in the photos in this series), I generally feel like they’re different from me, and again that’s just as true of people who are from what’s conventionally referred to as my “culture” as it is for people who are from a different one.
While living in Thailand and while traveling visiting local markets is one of my favorite things to do. While strolling the markets I definitely feel the merchants are somehow fundamentally different from me, for example in the way they haggle over what 500 g of green curry paste or a dozen flowers cost and count their stack of money during a slow period or nap in hammocks at the end of the market day. I really don’t think my style or theirs is better or worse, and in fact the world probably needs a lot more people who sell lovely flowers or build buildings than who do what I do. All I mean is that people who have really different educational levels and who work with their hands are somehow really different from me, and that this is as true in Peoria as it is in Phnom Penh.
I have a 30 year old memory of working at a fast food restaurant in high school and a heavy pan falling on my head from an overhead shelf that wasn’t attached properly to the wall. At the time I was living with my aunt, who is a physician, and as I lay on the examination table in her clinic while she stitched me up, I remember doing calculus problems in my head the whole time, trying to assess whether I’d been brain damaged by the accident. Already at 18 years old I’d worked out that being an Italian underwear model or World Cup soccer player were not in the cards for me. Even at that young age I knew that I would be making my way through this world with my mind.
According to neuroscientists the average human brain has about 100 billion neurons. As my aunt stitched me up I remember thinking that if that fucking Wendy’s pan had cost me even five of those neurons, that was a serious potential problem for my life. Why it occurred to me to integrate trigonometric functions in my head as a way of testing for cognitive decline I’m not sure but I suppose I remembered having no problem with those in high school math class and deciding to set that as a sort of mental baseline.
In a world in which everyone watches Netflix and listens to the latest songs from Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift is there anything smart and useful about talking about “culture” with a unifying American, Thai or other flavor? (As I write this “Shape of You” started playing from Spotify on my laptop – great song and it’s not his fault at all that I am thoroughly sick of it after hearing it Every Single Time I walked into a convenience store or bar in Saigon last year. In postmodern, global society I think there’s something really anachronistic and illusory about membership in a grand national culture. In the modern world perhaps each of us is a minority of one – each with our own unique cultural and intellectual influences, way of thinking, personality etc.
Does everyone remember those riots they had in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer? First I’m going to say something really simple about them and then I’m going to try to say something more complicated and hopefully more interesting. The simple thing – right now I’m struggling to think of anything more hideous than white nationalists marching with assault rifles. Do people in that country get that this is totally not normal? You really need to look to violent, broken states (say, Somalia) to find another places where violent political movements like this are even possible. Other democracies (Japan or Denmark, say) strike a more reasonable balance between individual expression and the rights of other people who may be harmed by that expression. There are no other liberal democracies where the outer limits of personal freedom are set in such an extreme way that violent extremists are allowed to march with military grade weapons. In stable but autocratic countries (e.g. China or Vietnam) the government reserves the sole right of both political expression and the use of violence so this sort of thing is unthinkable in places like that as well. So you have the United States and violent, broken states as the only places in which this sort of thing is even imaginable. Bizarre!
The more complicated and hopefully more interesting thing I have to say about these riots – I think that in 21st century global society, defining our identity based on nationality, national culture, religions or race is ridiculously anachronistic and limiting. Those idiots marching in Charlottesville want to celebrate their “nation”, “culture” and “race” but they fail to see how those grand narratives have become a sort of prison of their own design and construction. If you’re a 21st century human and you have such a limited and uncreative conception of who you are your life is very small indeed.
In the conventional way of thinking about these things, I’m not really what you would call “under-represented” (as a white, heterosexual male). On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the people in the places I’ve lived since university and graduate school don’t look like me. The more subtle point I’m getting at though is that as citizens of 21st century society we are all essentially minorities of one and any sense that we are bound to other people of the same nation, “culture” or other tribalistic sense of identity is at best illusory and deeply limiting. And at worst it can be dangerous.
As I read about the riots in Charlottesville I had a train of thought that started something like, “Hmmm these people are completely awful. But come to think of it though how do I think about my own identity?” And what I think is that it’s like a blank canvas that I’m free to paint as I like. And why on earth would I limit what I paint to the brushes and colors and patterns I received from the people who raised me?
In the global postmodern age, it seems ridiculously outdated to limit ourselves to the “culture” of our birth. The places I’ve traveled and lived are mostly thriving civilizations (and when they’re not particularly thriving (like Cambodia or Nepal, say) it’s pretty clear that the causes are things like war and bad government and not some fundamental problem with the people or the national culture). Traveling and living in all these fabulous places I want to absorb the best of the culture and customs I encounter.
Take Asia, for example, where I’ve lived for about 18 years, which more than a third of my life and the majority of my adult years. China and Japan were at the pinnacle of human civilization at a time when western Europeans were still eating raw meat off of the bone and banging rocks together to make fire. Being really curious about those cultures and wanting to absorb the best that they have to offer is as obvious and natural to me as breathing.
With the country I was born in, the United States, there are a mix of things I like (lots of risk taking initiative and entrepreneurial energy, for example) and things I dislike a lot (excess levels of consumption and materialism, for example the awful way people stampede into those Black Friday sales and even fight with other shoppers. I find the videos so cringe-worthy that I generally end up looking away).
The fact is most places (and most people) are a mix of good and bad. Even in my favorite places in the world there are a mix of things I like and those that I don’t. Take Japan, for example, where I lived for about 13 years. It’s a natural resource poor string of volcanic islands with only the land area of California, and 80% of that is mountainous and uninhabitable. It’s plagued with constant earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters, but in spite of those huge disadvantages it’s one of the world’s great civilizations and the 3rd largest economy. Wanting to learn and absorb the best from a place like that is a complete no brainer to me.
Everywhere in the world has problems, of course, including my favorite places, and it would be completely unsubtle and unsmart to fetishize Japan (or anywhere) as a utopia. For example, the work culture in Japan is among the most stressful in the world and most workers in Tokyo and other major cities lack anything close to a healthy work life balance. The rates of mental illness and suicide there are absolutely appalling (but Japan also has extremely low levels of violent crime, one of the world’s healthiest diets and at 83.98 years the world’s third longest life expectancy so I definitely don’t think it’s an unhealthy place overall).
So, while living and traveling in different countries, I have a strong bias towards curiosity and desire to learn and absorb the best from the places and people I encounter. I think of my own identity as a sort of postmodern pastiche, with influences from all the different places and people I’ve encountered in my travels through this world.
When I stroll through the flower market in the photos below or other traditional markets in Thailand (or anywhere in the developing world for that matter) something I often notice is the way they decorate their shops or market stalls with shrines, amulets, prayer beads and the like. I confess that I find all this a bit superstitious and while I’ve learned a lot from the people and places I’ve encountered in this part of the world, this is not going to be one of them. I don’t really think of this as a cultural difference though. I have plenty of Thai friends and I never see them with these items either.
The difference between the merchants at the traditional markets and myself isn’t something as simplistic as Thai vs. American culture. It’s more in the fundamental organization of our minds – I believe that my success and happiness depends almost completely on my own thoughts and actions and they believe that it depends, at least in part, supernatural forces outside themselves. I’m a big fan of Buddhist philosophy but my relationship to it is completely different from that of these shopkeepers. Stanford neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris, in his excellent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, writes at one point that spirituality is just developing a better relationship to our own consciousness. In that case, count me spiritual. I’m constitutionally incapable of believing anything without evidence, but I definitely think that I could benefit from a better relationship with my own mind.
When I stroll through traditional markets like the Bangkok Flower Market pictured in the photos below and I see a stall or shop decked out with shrines and amulets or photos of monarchs I definitely don’t have any negative reaction to it (even thought it’s not one of the things I personally absorb from Thai culture). I think that diversity is one of the most wonderful qualities of our planet and as I’ve noted most places and most people are a mix of good and bad. And, crucially, they are hurting absolutely no one with their religious and royal symbols. Life is hard sometimes and if those things help ease their journey through this world, more power to them.
Plus, I’m super aware of my own flaws so the last thing I’m doing is passing disapproving judgement as I stroll through the market. Religion, fortune tellers, astrology and the like are just fundamentally not who I am but that has absolutely nothing to do with them being Thai and me being from somewhere else. I do think that my difference with the Thai flower merchants has something to do with our education level and socio-economic class and almost nothing to do with our nationality or national culture. Actually, I find the displays visually interesting and often feel the urge to pick up my camera and record them.
Here’s to diversity, and here’s to flowers. Below are my best photos from a visit to Bangkok’s iconic flower market earlier this year.