This month, on October 24th, marks 2 years since I arrived into Asia for the first time. My initial plan was to buy a 1-way flight to Bangkok, stay for a couple months, and if I liked it, stay for a year or so and travel the area, and if I didn’t, travel to another city in the area and try the same. Like many people, plans changed and I ended up staying longer than a year.
It is fascinating looking back seeing how perspectives change. I remember arriving day 1 very well, and the following weeks, with my certain expectations, lack of awareness and understanding, and a vision of the future. My perspective today is completely different than it was then. It doesn’t mean that it went from good to bad, or bad to good, it is just that I’ve been able to further understand the world, especially Thailand, and as a result things that originally felt really out of place now seem normal.
My time in Asia has drastically shaped how I view the world. You have huge extremes on every level, whether it is the mega-malls in Bangkok where you can buy a Lamborghini on the top floor, to the very poor and underdeveloped areas of much of the surrounding areas and countries. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really mind what someone thinks, but more why they think it. I don’t mind that someone is Buddhist, or Hindu, or Christian, or Muslim, but what is the reason? What led them to those beliefs and why? Because of how many things I see that are unique from the West in Asia almost on a daily basis, I’ve been constantly asking the why for the last 2 years. It has led to some of the most enlightening thoughts and conversations in my life. Some things are amazing and fascinating, others are disgusting and vile, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is how it is.
The last 2 years have also taught me that it is difficult to understand without experience. I recently got back from Bangladesh and as much as I’d love to describe in great detail how it was (which I will try in an upcoming post), I don’t think it is possible. My friend Mark recently was in India and posted on Facebook about his experience, and what he posted I think can represent much of the world that is ever so different than what we’re used to:
India is without a doubt the most interesting, fascinating, crazy, beautiful, disgusting, dirtiest, gem buried in a pile of trash, ever! It has been the biggest positive surprise for me on this whole trip and maybe in my life. It is a land of ultimate extremes! I didn’t think I would like the chaos of it before we came and at first, I didn’t. But we started it off in the beautiful,small villages in the Himalayas and surrounded ourselves with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. When we went back to the major cities, in particular Varanasi on the Ganges River, I began to see so much life and color and beauty hidden underneath the uncontrolled filth that comes with a country of 1 billion people mostly in poverty. You can literally close your eyes, point your camera in any direction and take the most unique and interesting photo you’ve ever seen. I don’t know how many times we said “you don’t see that every day”. Farm animals walking through every city street, shitting everywhere alongside people doing the same. People spitting tobacco, pissing in the streets, sleeping on the sidewalks. And many of the people can be some of the most vile, disgusting, shameless people ever with so much kindness, love, life, and beauty shining through it all. We watched the most amazing local concert of sitar, tabla and sarangi in a hole in the wall down a random alley and then just down the Ganges watched bodies being cremated and dumped into the river next to people and animals bathing. It is impossible to understand it until you see it and you could spend a lifetime exploring this country with only scratching the surface.
I haven’t been to India yet, but I think if you replace the city names with others, that description could definitely describe my trip to Bangladesh recently. I’d imagine lots of the undeveloped world could be described that way from a western perspective, because we share this planet yet we live such vastly different lives.
The reason I came to Bangkok originally wasn’t to setup such a life here, but was more to travel. Bangkok is centrally located in Southeast Asia, and from it you can easily access the rest of Asia, especially Southeast Asia. I wanted to explore this area of the world, hence why I chose Bangkok. At the same time, I wanted to have a place I could call home. While I could just constantly travel and explore, I’ve found that it becomes overwhelming and you lose many of the benefits of travel because you can’t properly reflect on what you see and do. It also means that you don’t get the chance to somewhat understand a single place. As I’ve written about in the past, it takes 2-3 months for me to overcome a culture shock, and then many more months to get comfortable in a culture. With constant travel you never get passed that, so as a result you only get the skim the surface. I know that you have to pick and choose what you skim and what you live, so I decided to spend 1 month traveling every 3 months or so, which I’ve consistently done for the past 2 years. This has enabled me to have a proper home in Bangkok, with all the amazing food I could want, massages, beauty, diversity, and people. And at the same time, has allowed me to explore much of Southeast Asia, where I’ve spent a few weeks in almost every country in the area.
What’s the future hold? I find myself very comfortable in this area of the world. If I was to write down the things that I want in life right now, Bangkok has almost all of it (aside from my family). With that said, it is easy to get comfortable and stop exploring. I learned this when I lived in England, and told myself that whenever I get real comfortable, as great as it is, it is a sign I need to change. The change isn’t to dirupt something great, it is change to push myself to keep exploring. In a couple months I will head back to the US for Christmas and spend a couple months with my family, which I’m really looking forward to. Early next year I will backpack some of central America and/or South America. I may move somewhere in South America, but not sure yet. In May I have a flight scheduled back to Asia, which I may or may not cancel. It is tough to predict what will happen by then, and only time will tell. I’m excited.
Aside from the countless life lessons that you get from growing up, and then all the ones I learned on the side living in a foreign place and traveling places, below I’ve tried my best to write down some of the lessons or things I’ve realized since moving to Asia.
1. People are just animals
It sounds odd to some people if I say that, but it is true. In the West it is easy to think that humans are these superior beings that are completely different than animals we see every day. But as you get out of the West and see what the rest of the world is like, you begin to realize that humans are just animals.
2. People are very different
It’s easy to say we are all just humans. And we are at a very flat level. But with that said, humans can be very very different from each other. I heard an analogy the other day: when you think of a plane and a paperclip, you would classify them as a plane and as a paperclip, not as “both are just metal”. If you compare two books, A and B, people generally will classify them as books, not as “writing about X” or a “poem about Y”. Humans are the same, we seem to classify everyone as a human, but they can be vastly different, like a plane and a paperclip.
3. Seek out people with different beliefs
It’s easy to surround yourself by people who think like you, because it is comfortable and the people relate to you. But it creates a massive confirmation bias. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a Christian or Muslim say “but the people around me all believe the same, it must be true”. Think about how strong of a bias a church is? If you want to understand the world, surround yourself by different beliefs, you’ll learn a lot as long as you go in with an open mind.
4. The value of money
Money to me is an external thing, man-made and not something “natural” – this is why I think money should never play a role in a relationship – love is internal, money isn’t. Today people sacrifice their lives for money, all over the world. In Thailand alone I’ve seen countless woman give up everything in their lives to marry a rich man, even if he is twice her age. The value of money is so strong that she will sacrifrice everything for it. In the West you see countless people work for half of their conscious life just to make money which supports some artificial lifestyle that society has pressed on them. At the same time, you see people living on a $1/day perfectly happy, enjoying every day with their family and friends. The last 2 years have showed me that money shouldn’t really dictate anything in your life.
5. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind
2 of the things I’ve learned have been better stated by someone else, so I will borrow them from BrainPickings, an excellent blog of observation and thought. “We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”
6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity
(also from BrainPickings) “Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.””
I could go on and on about more, but I’ll leave my thoughts at that.