Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What Happens in Asia

There was the bustling moment as we climbed onto the train, trying not to fall into the gap, squeezing our backpacks through the narrow doorway, me banging my ukulele against things. We found seats, but there was nowhere to put our luggage. We pulled it close, trying to make sure people could still move comfortably up and down the aisle. This was our first train ride; we were excited. The train was simple, but comfortable, and relatively quiet.

We started moving. A woman walked the length of the train with a basket of snacks for sale. The car was mostly empty. A few seats up and on the other side of the car sat several monks in bright orange robes, chatting amicably with one another. One of them had a tattoo on his arm. Directly across from us was a boy, late teens, stretched out across several seats, with his feet propped up on a handrail. He napped sometimes, woke up. At one point, he took out a wallet. Then another wallet. He looked through them, and put them back in his pockets. Then he fell asleep again.

One of the monks got up and poked him, waking him up, and saying something angrily in Thai. He sat back down. Later, the woman selling snacks came back. The monk got up and poked the boy again, said something. The boy looked embarrassed and awkward. He bought a bottle of water from the snack lady and gave it to the angry monk. The monk went back to his seat and to chatting with the other monks.

Months later I realized where the boy’s propped-up feet were pointing.


We were heading downstream for the very last time. A few children we knew stood on the shore looking sad and confused. I felt like I should be about to cry, and maybe I was. A man from our village was also catching this boat. He was bringing a dog, which he picked up using a pole which was attached to a rope which was tied around the dog’s neck. He tossed her into the back of the boat by the engine and got in next to her.

We pushed off from the shore out onto the swollen river, under a gray sky. I wanted to be quiet; I didn’t trust myself to speak. For about two minutes I quietly thought about how I’d never see the village or the children ever again. Then the woman in the back of the boat, the driver’s wife, started shouting in Lao. The boat slowed. Twenty feet off the stern, in the water, was the dog, swimming across the flooded river towards the shore. She didn’t seem likely to make it. It was the rainy season, and the current was tremendous. I wondered what she thought she was going to do when she got there, with that big piece of wood tied around her neck and no one to feed her. I guess she thought it was better than the alternative.
The driver turned the boat back, and steered it close to the dog. When the dog came close to the boat, the owner reached out and grabbed the pole and scooped her dripping out of the water. We headed back downriver, and the driver stopped at the next village. The owner got out of the boat with the dog, and, splashing through the shallow water by the shore, carried her, soggy and hopeless, toward the front of the boat. Her rear feet didn’t touch the ground, but she moved them like she was trying to walk. It looked like she was riding an invisible bicycle.
The owner now tried to sit on one of the chairs in the front of the boat, with the wet dog, but there were a couple of white people sitting in the seats, probably tourists, and I suppose they didn’t approve of the idea. He carried the dog back again, her feet still pedaling uselessly. They both got into the boat next to the noisy engine. This time, I’m sure he was watching her more closely. I don’t think she was a pet.


Between the trees I caught a glimpse of a truck going by. Hundreds of large rubber balls, pink, blue, and green were stacked in the back of the truck, eight or ten feet high, held down with netting. I suspected that somewhere there would soon be some happy Vietnamese kids.


The bus stopped in a busy gravel parking lot. The night was humid and heavy, full of cigarette smoke, voices, bus horns honking imminent departures. I had been sitting like a sardine, bolt upright in the back of a small bus with my legs dangling into the stairway, with no footrest, for six hours. My feet felt like melons. I needed to pee.

I walked through the restaurant, brightly lit and full of midnight diners. I gave my coin to the man sitting at the table with the metal box. He smiled joyfully and said, Hello! People were looking at me. No one was white.

I walked down the ramp, towards the women’s room. All but one of the twelve stalls were occupied. I soon learned why: a neat pile of human feces was standing on the floor a foot away from the squat-toilet. So close. A shame, really. I wondered how they could have missed when the toilet itself took up fifty percent of the space in the stall. I considered waiting for another stall, then realized I didn’t care. I was careful to avoid the shit. I squatted, urine splattered all over my feet, as usual. I faced backwards, toward the wall, because that way it splashed less. I dipped water from the bucket to flush. I didn’t rinse around the toilet. I was in a hurry, and it seemed like a losing battle, anyway.

I got back on the bus and nightmared through the next six hours as the driver whipped us violently through the mountains across the island of Sumatra. In the early hours of the morning, we arrived in Maninjau. A new acquaintance of ours, a German boy, had his wallet lost or stolen as he got off the bus. Kristian and I waited while he and another recently acquired acquaintance, an Indonesian guy who lived in Maninjau, tried to chase the bus down on a moped.

In the pre-dawn dark, we crossed the street and piled our backpacks on an old wooden table that was standing on the sidewalk. Nothing was open, and no one was in sight. I was hungry, and ate some cookies. Dawn slowly broke over Lake Maninjau. I was slowly surprised as the steep green mountains materialized out of the dark, bits of drifting clouds clinging to them. A little girl came out of a house across the street, smiled, waved, and said, “Hello, how are you?” I said, “fine, thank you.” We practiced counting to ten in English. Pointing at her head, she wordlessly asked me if I had a head scarf. I shook my head no.

It got lighter, and soon two young Indonesians, brother and sister, walked up to us and introduced themselves with nervous smiles. They were there visiting their grandmother for the Ramadan holiday. They spoke English and told us about their studies. While we waited for the German guy to come back, we played ukulele and they taught us words in Indonesian. They let us use the bathroom at their grandmother's house. We waited for a couple hours, but the German kid never came back, and we wanted to find a place to stay. While we’d been hanging out with the brother and sister, an old man had opened his small shop behind us. We left a message with him for the German kid. We ended up seeing him later that day. He’d never gotten his wallet back.
We walked several kilometers down the shore, looking for a guesthouse. They were all full because of Ramadan. Several people stopped us and asked to take pictures with us. Indonesians always like to take multiple pictures. I guess they’re worried some wouldn’t turn out. A whole family came to take photos with us. They spoke in English and the parents introduced their teenage daughters. Eventually we found a bungalow by the lake. It had no electricity, but the food was cheap and delicious. The owner said we could use the dugout canoe if we wanted. The water quietly licked the shore. Right in front of the bungalow, an old man sat out on the dock of one of the fish farms for hours, trying to catch fish from the nets with a fishing pole, but they kept fumbling out of his hands and splashing back in. The water was a mirror, reflecting the mountains and the clouds. At night it reflected the stars and the lights from the fish farms. I hadn’t forgotten, but I didn’t mind the bus or the shit. I loved Sumatra.


The interior of each city block contains a whole world, a maze of miniature apartments, convenience stores, and restaurants piled on and around each other, occupying every conceivable cubic meter. Only pedestrians and the most precise moped drivers can navigate the labyrinthine alleys of Saigon.

The mundane is a forceful presence here. Two feet to the left and two feet to the right are the apartment windows and open doors that press large and close like theater screens. It’s impossible not to look into the apartments, narrow but deep, extending back into the dense living tissue of the block.

A dog barks. A family sits cross-legged around a table, eating dinner. A moped is parked in one living room. On the walls are sometimes small shrines, framed pictures of Buddha. A girl lies stretched out on the floor, watching TV. Some families have couches, but no one sits in them.


“Buy a book. Here.” An eight-year-old with a heavy basket of assorted books comes up to the table where the three of us are drinking beer. She waves a book at us. “No thanks,” we all say. Marcel smiles and shakes his head. We look very deliberately down at the table, or pick up our beer and stare out towards the Mekong. We look anywhere but at the girl, who stands only a tiny head above the level of our table. “Here. This one.” “We don’t need a book.” “This?” She holds up a bracelet of wooden beads. “No, thanks, we already have some.” Kristian shows her his wrists, loaded with bracelets. “But this one is different.” There is a touch of desperation in her voice.

More of them have materialized around us. A Canadian father and his teenage son are sitting at the next table. They come here every day for pizza. They know the kids. The kids don’t try to sell them books anymore. They give one of them a piece of pizza.

A few more try to sell us books. We don’t buy; but for some reason, they don’t leave. The son at the next table is playing a game with one of them—rock, paper, scissors. Somehow, all of these kids with their old clothes, their heavy baskets of books, their relentless attempts to sell, they all speak English. You can even joke with them. Kristian tells them they should stop selling books and go to school. They all insist that they do, they do go to school, but only in the morning. The kids don’t leave, but they don’t try to sell us books. Kristian goes back to speaking German with our Swiss friend, Marcel. I don’t understand German, and focus on trying to find out where the kids live. One of them speaks enough English to tell me what her favorite class in schools is—math. She lives outside the city with her sister. Her parents are “angels.”

An adult somewhere in the pizza restaurant gives the kids a stern look, says a few words in Khmer and they guiltily wander away from our tables. It seems like the adult knows the children, but I can’t figure out what the relationship is. The booksellers will come back a couple beers later, play some more rock, paper, scissors, be shooed away again. The father at the next table says they stay out every night until ten or eleven o’clock, walking up and down the street, trying to sell books. I wonder when they have time to do their homework.

We entered the tunnel through the old city wall, pressed against the bricks to avoid the traffic. We were busy conversing. On the other side of the wall, on the bridge that crossed the old city’s moat, I stopped talking, and said, “Look!”

A man was pushing a cart with ranks of fish tanks stacked five tanks high. There was water in them, and fish, all different types and colors, and they sloshed back and forth as he pushed the cart over the bumpy bridge.

“I’ve seen a few things on wheels, but wow.” A moment of surprise, and deep appreciation. I managed to get the camera out and take a few fuzzy pictures in the fading light. Eventually, one of us said, “What were we talking about?”

For the party, the villagers slaughtered a young cow. Afterwards, somehow, our family acquired some of the leftover meat. They cooked it up for dinner that night. I didn’t eat it, but I know from the photographs. I was upstairs under the mosquito net, asleep, in a rice-whisky-induced oblivion.

The next day, there were bones above the hearth—a cow jaw, cow leg bones. They were there the following day as well, and for several days after that. They became dark from the smoke, and the bits of flesh clinging to the cow’s jaw dried into a deep red-brown. One day they were gone.



Friday, December 28, 2012

The adventure may be over, but this blog isn't

For the past, oh, year and a half—basically since its creation—this blog has sort of fallen by the wayside. I like to blame graduate school applications, third-world infrastructure, and our fancy for spending time in the wilderness. It would have been wonderful to inform the world of what we were doing, as we were doing it, to reassure our friends and family that we hadn’t fallen into the ocean and not climbed back out, and to share all the amazing things we were seeing and learning. Sadly, that could not be. I feel, though, that those things are still worth sharing, even if some of them happened months ago.

That’s why I intend to keep up this blog for a while. Partially, I will write for the few curious people out there who may still want to know what the hell we were doing all that time. More importantly, as that gulf that separates the past from the present grows and the bold ship of my recent adventure sails off leaving me stranded here on the shore of my increasingly normal daily life, I want to write about my experiences so that I myself can remember them—so that I can see the places again, feel the excitement of learning, stand again in the presence of things mysterious and foreign. Hopefully by re-adventuring in the world of memory I can find something I missed the first time and extract even a bit more wisdom or inspiration.

I also hope to get some more pictures and maps and other interesting things on here, make it sort of, you know, worth reading.

Let’s see how this goes.

Growing Up Lao

*Kristian and I worked as volunteer English teachers for a German non-profit organization in Laos from April 2012, until August 2012. For more information, see previous post.*

Ab nam king! Ab nam king!” chants the crowd. They’ve convinced me to go for a swim in the creek, and their joy at having accomplished this is evident in their ecstatic faces and their little limbs jumping and whirling with the inexhaustible energy of childhood. It’s like being in the center of a hive of absurdly affectionate bees, and I wonder how I will be able to keep up with them for the next four months.

Someone grabs my hand and drags me down the dusty yellow road of the village, between the bamboo walls of two houses, and then we’re hurtling down a steep, leaf-littered trail under the shade of a teak grove toward what I presume is their favorite swimming spot in the Nam King, the creek after which the village, Sop King (Mouth of the King) takes its name. Children are shedding garments as they run. Tattered t-shirts, probably handed down through several generations of siblings, fly off; children pause as they near the creek, hopping on one leg and jerking off their shorts, smiling with anticipation. They throw their clothes into a pile and hurl themselves off the four-meter rock outcrop into the water in one quick motion, shrieking with joy.

One naked brown body after another flies into the deep green water below. They gesture toward the high rock, smiling encouragingly at me. I peer over the edge. The ones already in the water shout at me, waving, palm-down, with the ubiquitous Southeast Asian signal for, “Come! Come!” The creek is not that big; how deep can this water possibly be? It occurs to me that the nearest hospital with an English speaking doctor is over seven hours away, three hours by river boat, and then at least four hours more on bumpy mountain roads. Sop King would not be a good place to break a bone or get a concussion by jumping into an unknown swimming hole onto a shallowly submerged rock. No, I smile and gesture, no, I can’t, I’m scared, I will climb down another way.

As I pick my way down the steep rocks towards the water, I meet children hurrying up, all smiles, ready for their next jump. The surface is slippery with the water they are dripping. I make it to the level of the creek and lower myself in. I am instantly swarmed and can hardly keep afloat. The water churns with frenetic limb-flailing and joyous shrieks. Naked and half-naked children cling to my back, neck, arms, jostling for position. I’m pretty sure that in the United States, I’d be arrested for swimming alone in the forest with a dozen naked schoolchildren, but, in this situation, I certainly feel like any onlooker would have to acknowledge that I am the victim, not them.

I make it to shallower water where I can stand comfortably, and start imposing a semi-ordered system of turn-taking on their chaotically eager desire to climb all over me. One after another I go underwater, a child climbs on my shoulders, I emerge, count to three, and, launch! Dunk, scramble, one, two, three, launch! After a while, I employ a scrap of the little Lao I have learned in my first few days in the country. Muay—I’m tired, I’m tired! Am I pronouncing it incorrectly? It doesn’t seem to register. Eventually, though, I start denying turns, though the flash of disappointment on their faces pains me. I like to think I’m a fairly energetic person. But keeping up with the energy of a kid is always a challenge. Keeping up with several dozen Lao kids, I realize, is going to be a very special challenge indeed.


Lao children: their character and habits

I’ve had some experience working with kids. From my teenage days of volunteering at after-school programs with elementary schoolers, I went on to be an experiential educator on tall ships, where I occasionally found myself confronting fairly daunting kid-related challenges—keeping the morale of eighteen nauseous high school girls afloat on a ten-day trip out on a rough, cold sea; shepherding twenty sassy and mischievous at-risk ninth-graders through La Guardia Airport on my own; and, of course, the daily challenges of simply trying to teach on a boat, with the deck rolling, leaping dolphins hogging my students’ attention, and, of course, the constant possibility that the staysail club could fly across the deck and knock off a fifth grader’s head. I felt that working with kids on tall ships was a fairly adequate training for whatever Laos could throw at me. And though it was certainly more help than if I had spent my entire educational career yapping at some sleepy students in a windowless classroom, there were, of course, plenty of surprises.

The biggest surprise was Lao kids themselves. To beat again on the old “same same but different” drum, they were, of course, similar in many ways to their American, or European, or generally non-remote-village-dwelling counterparts. Kids are kids—they run, they play, they make messes, they love attention, they don’t like being scolded; some of them are shy, some of them are bullies; some of them will follow every instruction you give like it’s the word of God, some of them are too cool for school. For the most part, my previously acquired kid-skills were transferable. Yet it would be entirely false to claim that Lao kids were basically equivalent to their video-game-playing, soda-slurping, bug-fearing Western equivalents. Every day someone did something that had you scraping your jaw off the ground.
Picture a three-year-old, wobbling about on his chubby little legs. Now picture him wobbling about, pantsless, on a dusty village street, holding a ten-inch machete, no adult in sight. This was a common sight in Lao villages. On another occasion, an excited ten-year-old approached me, brandishing a broken prop from a small boat engine. Later, down at the swimming hole, I understood the function of this toy. Standing on the rock outcrop, he chucked in his big chunk of jagged metal, and jumped in after it. After he’d retrieved it from the bottom, I saw him dragging it through the water, fascinated by how it rotated when he pulled it forward. He swung it close to me to show me. Though I was enthusiastically in support of his fascination with the laws of fluid dynamics exhibited in this phenomenon, I wasn’t particularly keen to get closer than a few feet from his new toy.

These examples perfectly illustrate one prominent difference between Western kids and Lao kids. Lao kids seem perfectly content without shiny plastic toys and elaborate gadgets (probably because they’ve had no exposure to them). They seem able to find entertainment in the everyday objects that nature and village life put in front of them. They manage to turn mundane, ignorable objects into fascinating playthings—an old plastic spool attached to the end of a bamboo pole becomes a car. The unwanted bamboo strips from basket making become sunglasses, pinwheels, and elaborate headdresses. An ear of corn becomes a doll, its silvery silk long, luxurious hair. Even chicken feathers tossed into the air become the center of attention during a rare windy moment before a towering thunderstorm hits the village. Entertainment seems to be everywhere.

In addition to demonstrating their creativity, the examples of toddlers with machetes and kids learning science with jagged cast-of boat props speak volumes about Lao parenting philosophy. Some would say that letting your three-year-old wield a large knife is egregiously irresponsible on the part of the parents. I say, this is Lao parents letting their kids learn how not to be idiots. Though I occasionally raised an eyebrow or two when I saw toddlers running around with sharp things, pointy sticks, and fire, I never interfered. In my opinion, that was the job of their parents, and if they looked on unconcerned, then so would I. Considering the number of unattended kids who were climbing trees, doing back flips off of cliffs into the creek, driving tiny canoes around on a rushing river, and dangling off a fifty-foot-high bamboo bridge like it was a jungle gym, very few kids ever seemed to get injured. Lao kids seemed, for the most part, to possess a shockingly high degree of common sense, which I imagine comes from their parents’ letting them learn from their own mistakes.

Another quality that I suspect helps them avoid injury during their wild and dangerous play is their incredible degree of coordination and athleticism. Playing with Lao kids was an extremely physically demanding job. My weight-loss regimen included Lao food (not always the most savory), and a daily game or two of tag in the Nam King. I had to eventually give up trying to catch some of the kids. Anyone over age ten was pretty much too fast. They would dive under the water, and pop up twenty feet away before I’d even turned around. Too bad they didn’t understand, “Hey, teleportation is cheating.” This insatiable desire to play tag extended to land as well. They would have Kristian and I run around and around the toe-breaking, uneven village streets, even at night, until our hearts threatened to explode and we were soaked with sweat. “Hot,” “tired,” “finished”—these were English words the kids learned fairly early on. I’m sure sometimes it seemed to them like these were the only words in the English language, judging by how often Kristian and I repeated them.

The most popular team sport in Laos is by far ka taw, which is basically volleyball—except that you can only use your head, and your feet. Teenage ka taw players frequently spike the ball over the net with the bottom of their foot. I doubt many American thirteen-year-olds, aside from trained gymnasts, would be capable of such feats of flexibility and coordination. It’s certainly hard to imagine enough Americans being fit enough to play ka taw for it to become the national pastime.

Along with Lao kids’ athleticism came what would be, by American kid standards, a perverse insensitivity to pain. I hesitated to introduce the game Red Rover, because I thought that, given their energetic tendencies, someone might break an arm the way they would play it. But when I saw the Fight Club-esque, village-wide games of kung-fu fighter that went on in the evenings, I realized that Red Rover was far less likely to lead to bloodied faces. It ended up being a huge hit, to the point of drawing impressive crowds of girl sibling and adult spectators.

Which brings up an issue I have previously not mentioned—gender roles. Not being able to speak Lao, it was hard for me to find answers to the innumerable questions I had about Lao daily life, so I must admit that my understanding of such elements of Lao culture hardly amount to rigorous anthropological studies and are based only on superficial observations. That said, I noticed that though Lao girls are impressively athletic—they outran, outswam, and outclimbed me on a regular basis—they are far less involved in rough-housing than their male counterparts. They also do not play ka taw. But the behavior of the village girls highlights another striking difference between Lao children and the children I was familiar with from back home—incredible independence, responsibility, and work ethic.

It was not at all uncommon to see an eight-year-old, usually a little girl, hunched over from the weight of her baby sister or brother, whom she carried around all day long while her parents were working elsewhere. When a toddler flopped on its face and started crying, it was almost always an older sibling, often a sister, who came to the rescue. For the most part, these kids discharged their responsibility with great consideration and care in between chatting with their friends or playing whatever games could be played with a baby strapped to one’s back. Additionally, I often saw girls (though rarely boys) trekking in from the jungle, bent over with a load of firewood or vegetables, helping their mothers with laborious chores from the age of six or seven.

This precocious ability to care for one’s self and others was not entirely limited to girls. When I heard that the organization had built a boarding house in one village so that children who live far from the nearest school can stay nearby during the school week, I immediately asked who monitored the kids during non-school hours. Having gone to a boarding school myself during high school, I knew that, at least in the Untied States, in loco parentis is taken very seriously. My high school was basically a gigantic, overprotective parent. When I went to boarding school, our day was meticulously scheduled so that we had almost no free time to go looking for trouble. We were told how to dress, we had a curfew, we weren’t allowed to go for rides in our friends’ cars, we were assigned chores. Considering my experience of boarding school, I was flabbergasted to learn that the boarders at this village’s primary school lived away from home five out of seven days of the week entirely without adult supervision.  It being a small village, there were often adults around, sure; but, amazingly, no one was directly responsible for taking care of these kids. They gathered their own food, cooked their own meals, cleaned up after themselves, and put themselves to bed entirely on their own.

This boarding house was built for the village’s primary school, which meant that the oldest of these children was about fourteen. What these kids were doing as pre-teens, many American youths aren’t expected to do until college, at best. Even then, it is assumed they will probably screw it up; hence the need for Resident Assistants, hall monitors, and such individuals whose job is to make sure these sadly dependent eighteen-year-olds don’t get drunk and trash the place, or burn down the building trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich. I will admit that the grounds of this boarding house in Laos were not in a much better state of cleanliness than most college dorms; but these kids didn’t have the luxury of housekeeping staff.

At first glance, it might seem that their independence and wild energy would make Lao children difficult to teach. And perhaps, if one thinks that learning can only happen while sitting at a desk in a classroom, this would have been true. Luckily, our method of English teaching didn’t require classrooms or desks, or textbooks, or tests, and their energy, as well as their warm and affectionate nature, made Lao children excellent students.

English teaching, English learning

I will acknowledge that Lao kids are not what one would call “good students” by Western standards. They don’t spend much time on homework; they’d always rather climb trees or play in the street. Most children seem to think that class consists of sitting in a room and repeating what a teacher shouts at them. However, when presented with a variety of informal learning activities out of the classroom, they proved themselves to be interested and capable learners of English.

Kristian had studied linguistics in college, and with his knowledge of second language acquisition, he began designing a new English program for the organization. It is based on the so-called “natural approach,” in which the teacher’s job is not so much to teach a language through forcing students to study grammar, memorize vocabulary, and learn to reproduce common phrases, as to create an environment in which students can hear and analyze a new language and learn to speak by synthesizing their own utterances based on the rules they have inferred from the input the teacher gives them. This method focuses on informal interaction—basically, play. We swam, played games, drew pictures, all the time speaking only in English. We never made the children take a test or quiz, or memorize anything. After only a couple months, the results were quite impressive.

Watching them gradually develop the ability to communicate in English was marvelous, like watching a plant grow, or watching the sun come up. First, they would stare at us shyly when we spoke in English, but soon we realized that, though they didn’t say anything back, they understood the greater part of what we said to them. Before long, they were able to answer yes or no questions—Do you want to play? Do you like mangoes? Then, they could provide simple one-word answers out of their stock of recently absorbed vocabulary—What is this? A dog! The youngest son of our host family, Sompit, had an impressive understanding of English by the time we left. The three of us—he, Kristian, and myself—had an ability to communicate that was quite amazing, though not perfectly sophisticated. We were able, however, to talk in English about most things that were relevant to a seven-year-old’s daily life, and Sompit even began to act as a translator when our Lao failed us in conversations with his parents.

Though it requires volunteers with inexhaustible energy and dedication, I am convinced it is perfectly possible to teach children English in the setting of a rural village, without the usual resources considered necessary for a “proper” education—textbooks, notebooks, even classrooms. However, after this experience, I was left wondering about the ultimate purpose of this English program. Within a very few years, these children will certainly be fluent English speakers. But what then? Will they simply become English-fluent rice farmers? What possibilities does our presence open up in the life of a Lao child?

Laos is a country undergoing radical changes, very few of which I understand. Subsistence farmers are moving to the cities to find wage jobs. Chinese firms are negotiating contracts to plant vast teak forests across the countryside. Massive road works, damn projects, and the spidery spread of telephone and electrical lines are changing the flow of people, water, and information. Some villagers now have television dishes, sound systems, and cell phones. What are the causes of these developments? Who is set to gain by them? What will be their ultimate effects on rural Lao people, on my students? And can knowledge of the English language help them?

I cannot answer these questions after spending only a few months in Laos. I hope that the organization I worked for will eventually come up with carefully-considered answers and help its volunteers develop a greater sense of purpose by understanding the role of English language education. Just from my own limited experience, I do, however, think Lao children gain simply by exposure to foreigners whose agenda is not to take advantage of them, but to help them appreciate and preserve their own way of life, while developing a new understanding of and curiosity about the world beyond their village—a world which is rapidly coming nearer and nearer.

Part of me thinks, may the approach of the outside world not spoil these children—in several senses of the word. I felt a twinge of pain when I saw teenagers roaming the village streets in packs, hovering around one lucky boy and his cell phone, transfixed by its ability to capture fuzzy images of them posing in silly postures or squirt out tinny-sounding versions of America’s or Thailand’s latest pop sensations. What if there comes a day when village children no longer get excited about jumping into the creek, or playing with corn dolls, or making sunglasses out of strips of bamboo? What if they will begin to need kung-fu movies, music videos, pop stars, and camera phones in order to find excitement? Though I have no right to stop anyone from seeking what they see to be the good, I do not myself want to be the connection between these children and the global entertainment network that will in short order crush their creativity and make them addicted to mass-produced garbage. On the other hand, there are certain tools that may be of great use to them in the future—the computer, the telephone, the internet, the automobile—and perhaps, as an educator, I should see it as my job to show how these things work and what they can be used for aside from entertainment and frivolous short-term satisfaction. The same things that can suck away creativity and absorb what is unique about a people can also be a means to preserve and strengthen the ties that hold people together.

Laos is changing, quickly, inevitably. All that one can hope to do, as a concerned individual, is try to make sure that people are educated about what is happening, and empowered to protect their own interests. Though I don’t feel like I did this in a particularly direct manner, I hope that, by simply spending time with these children and happily riding the wave of their energy and creativity, by preferring to go swimming rather than watch TV, or listen to Lao music instead of American music, I showed that I valued them and their way of life, and that I wasn’t there to make them change, but to provide knowledge that may help them protect what they have. Who knows what we accomplished in those few months, if anything, really. But I hope to stay involved, and, as much as possible, follow the lives of my students as they grow up in an ever-changing Laos.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An Apology and a Preface

Wynne Hedlesky
1214 local time
Düsseldorf, Germany

Beloved readers, I am deeply sorry for my extended absence from the “blogosphere”. I will apologize for Kristian as well. Sadly, he is currently working on a novel and may not post here again for a while. One might think that hitchboating around the world is basically an extended vacation, but you would be surprised at how busy a person can get. We have also been in some fairly remote places, where even electricity is a luxury. Hard to blog if your computer is dead. As for the internet—well. When we had it, I was frantically trying to complete graduate school applications so that I could submit them before I got on a sailboat to cross the Indian Ocean. Turns out there’s not internet out there, either.

Excuses, excuses. I have been burning to say something about the eight months we spent in Asia, and only now, in the comfort and leisure of a snuggly first-world Christmastime, am I finally finding an opportunity to post some words on our experiences there, the highlight of which was, by far, the time that Kristian and I spent living among the emerald mountains and kind-hearted people of northern Laos.

As a preface to the post that follows, I would like to briefly describe what we were doing there. Kristian and I spent four months volunteering for Bambusschule, a German non-profit organization that focuses on improving education and health care along the Ou River in northern Laos. We lived with a Lao family, in a Lao village, three hours away by boat from the nearest town with automobiles or the Internet. In most of the villages where we worked, we were the only English speakers. Our job, roughly, was to teach English and carry out some maintenance projects on the buildings—three schools and a boarding house—that the organization has built in the region. 
For the first few weeks, we had some small degree of guidance from the organization’s Field Manager. He acquainted us with the key figures in the villages where we would be working, and helped us plan the summer’s maintenance projects. He provided next to no guidance about the English teaching program, however, other than showing me a box full of paper, pencils, and other school supplies and telling me this was what I had to work with. No book, no syllabus, no notes from previous volunteers, nothing. He seemed completely unconcerned at the lack of structure or guidance—“Bo pen nyang, relax, this is Laos!” he said. He was never particularly interested in that part of the organization’s work; he focused more on plumbing projects. He had a love for building things out of little blue PVC pipes. After about a month, he went home to Australia on vacation. Shortly thereafter, he was fired.

So Kristian and I were left more or less alone for three months in rural Laos to find the best way to accomplish the organization’s goals and represent its values. For the building maintenance projects, we had to get by with our meager knowledge of the Lao language—we had no translator while purchasing and transporting supplies, or negotiating with village leaders. We were also supposed to incorporate as much English teaching into our schedule as possible, but with the added complication that school was out of session for most of our time there, and so we had no scheduled time for English class, and no classroom in which to teach. And yet it could hardly have been better.

We took advantage of our lack of direct supervision and the open-ended directives to begin designing a new English program for the organization, based on the knowledge of second language acquisition that Kristian gained during his university studies in linguistics and his participation in a research project about the subject conducted by the university of Cologne in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Institute in Nijmegen. Throughout everything we did, we worked closely with the organization’s founder in Germany (or as closely as you can when you can only communicate every two weeks or so). The core of our new program is informal interaction—that is, play. It was not difficult to convince the village kids to get involved. By the end of the summer, some of the kids we worked with had gone from robotic repetition of “How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you” to the ability to express their likes and dislikes, ask questions, explain aspects of their daily life, and open up the all-important highways of communication between people from vastly different worlds.

I hope that the opportunity to interact with us ends up playing a positive role in those children’s lives. Learning about their way of life was certainly a valuable experience for me. More than anything, I continued to be struck by how so many aspects of Lao daily life stubbornly remained unexplained, regardless of the fact that I had lived in such close contact with Lao people for several months. The richness of cultures is such that people as different as me and my Lao hosts can find vast areas of common ground, while there always remain differences that make each group unique, and incite in us curiosity about our fellow human beings. I hope that the exposure to foreign people and language both instills in the children I interacted with a desire to learn about the world outside their village, as well as an understanding of the value of their own unique way of life.

P.S. If you are interested in volunteering with Bambusschule (Bamboo School), contact Bodo Peters:, or visit


Monday, May 21, 2012

Same same, but different

May 21, 2012
Nong Kiau, Luangphabang, Laos
1736 local time
Wynne Hedlesky

            I have neglected to post a blog entry for several months. My reasons (otherwise known as excuses) are many. First, I was studying for the GRE. Now, as a volunteer English teacher, when I’m not trying to entertain several dozen highly energetic Lao children, I’m working on grad school applications. But, really, the reason is that I have not been able to think of how to condense four months of experience being geographically and experientially on the other side of the world into a thousand words.

            The answer is that it is not possible. So I won’t try. Instead, I’ll write a quick summary of the emotional arc of my time in Asia, alluding to experiences and interesting anecdotes which I will not share. I hope that many of them will come out in later blogs.

            It’s quite a collection, all together. Truly, I’ve gathered an embarrassment of brief tales of the odd and unusual. Not a day has gone by that didn’t present some curious sight, some enigmatic event that left me scratching my head, laughing out loud, or scraping my jaw off the ground. The people who live here would say, “welcome to life”; I tend to say, “What the hell is going on?”

            I will describe our first twenty four hours in Asia. Even after what I have seen since then, that immediate impression is still strong. Never had I experienced such a sensation of bafflement at things that presented themselves as ordinary.  Perhaps it’s a bit like falling on your head, coming to, and no longer being able to recognize your own friends and family, though they smile at you familiarly. It was surreal from the moment we stepped out of the taxi from the airport into the general neighborhood of our guesthouse. Kristian and I spent our first night futilely trying to sleep in a room right on the raucous, nocturnal booze trough that is Khao San Road, where drunk tourists come together from all over the world to suck down “buckets” of the world’s cheapest cocktails until they entirely forget they are in Bangkok. In the morning we sallied forth for our first daylight stroll in Asia.

            We soon got marvelously lost among the busy streets, shady canals, and tiny, winding alleys of Bangkok. Everywhere people went about their business. You could tell by the comfortable looks on their faces, the casual jokes shared with neighbors. But what was their business, exactly? That I could not determine, try as I did. They all bustled about, or sat and did what they do, in a world which, though it contained people and streets and motorized vehicles and buildings just like the world I came from, made very little sense to me. What’s the deal with these dollhouses on pedestals, covered with fruit and rice and flowers and opened bottles of orange soda with straws? The second floor of that house is about to fall off, and the walls are made of random bits of plywood. Do they not have building codes? Shit, I didn’t know you could fit a moped there. It’s hot, let’s sit in the shade. There’s a bench. Wait, that’s in front of a house…no, a store. What if it’s a private bench, here on the public sidewalk? Well, it’s not really a sidewalk, I guess. People are driving mopeds on it. That bench is right next to that rusted-out, abandoned car full of trash…Let’s find a park instead. Oh, there’s one. No, it’s a trash dump. I mean, someone’s back yard. No, trash dump. What’s that mass of gold and sparkly stuff over there? Ah, a temple. Let’s go in. Oh, wait, I’m wearing shorts…I can’t go in, right? Where am I not supposed to point my feet when I’m inside? Oh well. Let’s get some lunch. Wait, is this a restaurant or a house? There are people sitting inside at some tables. They don’t look interested in helping us. Maybe they’re just the residents. Maybe it is a restaurant, but it’s closed. Is it because it’s Sunday? Why would it matter if it’s Sunday, they’re Buddhists. Ok, right. Ok, let’s try the street vendor. Yeah…can’t read the menu. Let’s just say, like, “noodles,” or “rice,” and see what they make. We could point to the stuff in the case. What is it? I don’t know. Intestines?

            And on it went. Everywhere was strangeness. Every basic activity had to be relearned, in some way, at least. Drinking water, going to the bathroom, crossing the street, buying things, it is all done significantly differently in Asia. Or so it seemed to me.

            Kristian, on the other hand, frequently pointed out that, although the way things are done in Asia surprised us not on a daily but on an almost momently basis, a city like Bangkok, for example, is more similar to a city in the West than it is different. People hurry everywhere; there are streets packed with cars, buses, and other vehicles; people buy and sell their goods. They catch trains, buses, and boats. They work in shops, restaurants, in the tall buildings full of offices. They think about fashion, about money, what’s for dinner, about their friends and family. They sit and have drinks after work. The friendly ones greet strangers on the street. Beggars and bums curl up in alleys. Humanity pulses on, being human, as it does in every place on earth.

            The difference in our reaction to Asian life got me thinking about a couple of well-worn phrases in wide use across Southeast Asia. When asking for a price comparison between two food dishes, a vendor might reply, “same same.” When trying to convince a handicraft vendor that you don’t need their goods because you already have a bracelet like that, they will probably say: “But this different.” If someone struggles in their limited English to point out the subtle differences between two items, they might say, “Same same, but different.” So common are these phrases, and somehow so fundamental to the tourist experience in Asia, that they are plastered across t-shirts in every souvenir shop in every country we have visited. Even locals wear them. As much as a cliché as they are, they represent a patch of common ground, an idiosyncrasy of Asian English that exists neither in English, nor in any Asian language, but is a valuable tool for communication across cultures, as well as being humorous. It is recognized as such by people from both sides.

 I think neither “same same” nor “different” adequately describes my current impression of life in Asia as compared to my homeland. Not surprisingly, cultures resist being crammed into one or the other end of such a dichotomy. I’d describe Asia as a t-shirt with “same same” on one side, and “but different” on the other.

            Over time, though, the “but different” part stands out less and less. That original sensation of bafflement, of wide-eyed wondrous confusion has subsided. For some of the things I have seen, I have since found definitive explanations. For others, Kristian and I have inferred what we think to be a probable account, and have left it at that. For many, many other strange events and observations, I have simply not sought an explanation, or hardly even noted their occurrence, because to live in a state of constant wonder is impossible. This is not because it is exhausting, or difficult to maintain; to live every moment truly appreciating the strangeness of things you do not understand is contrary to a basic law of human existence, that we, as human beings, stretch and flex and adapt to our surroundings, without even needing to try. Now, I simply perceive what goes on around me as “normal,” even when I do not understand it. I notice an anomaly, shrug, and go about my business, because, at a certain point, what you do every day starts to feel “normal,” even if what you do every day is see things you’ve never seen before in your life. 

            What lies at the root of our ability to adapt to life in a different culture? Would I be able to adapt to life with space aliens who have tentacles and no faces, communicate telepathically, and get their energy from plutonium reactions rather than the combustion of carbon-based molecules? Probably not. What makes it possible to be less startled at the “but different” of life in another culture is that, as humans, we really share a lot. You could even say that the differences are superficial matters of etiquette or practicality. Even though we speak different languages, I can read the emotions of my Lao hosts here in Sopking by looking at their faces. Children here still like to play, love attention, and dislike being disciplined. Boys and girls flirt. People work during the day. Meals are central to the organization of time. At night, people eat, socialize, then go to sleep. Any human could get into that groove.

            But these observations, again, attempt to corner a culture into one end of the “same same but different” dichotomy by attempting to boil all perceived differences down into mere trifles, which they are not. These differences are precisely what makes traveling worthwhile and life-changing. Why travel if you don’t want to experience how things are done in other places? If you want the same food, the same beer, and the same company while you travel that you get at home, then stay home.

In addition to being inherently interesting and making a person feel like he or she is part of a vast and fascinating world, these differences provide a priceless opportunity, the opportunity to reset our eyes, to be able to view the familiar as something new, something strange. During that window where wonder is alive, before our ability to adapt turns the strange into the normal, I hope to learn from and think about my own homeland in ways I have never been able to before. I hope that in a year and a half, I’ll write a blog entry about my baffling first twenty-four hours back in the United States.

Friday, April 13, 2012

White Savior Industrial Complex?

1245, local time
Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
Wynne Hedlesky

This is just a quick comment I posted on Facebook in response to Teju Cole's viral tweets and follow-up article on the "White Savior Industrial Complex." For the most part, I agree with what he says, and unlike some readers, I don't particularly find his tone resentful, pretentious, or grating; I think his anger and sarcasm are justified, and also serve to help take the issue out of the realm of neutral language that ensures that readers remain unruffled and indifferent.

I posted on Facebook:

'As I prepare to teach English in Lao, I wonder if I am about to become a "cool 20-something American hero," though on a different continent. It's a strange, uncertain feeling that leaves you really wondering about your own motives, and feeling rather afraid to look inside and try to discover them. I try to remind myself that this is a drop in the ocean; that this is more for myself to develop skills of working with people in the field in future projects than to save the people of Lao, and I shouldn’t let my conscience pat me on the back.

I’ve learned a tiny bit about the recent political history of SE Asia, and I must agree with Teju Cole—it it's hard not to be convinced that the “money-driven villainy” of America, France, and other powerful nations played a central role in the destabilization of the region in the last hundred years, just as colonialism, both overt and in the guise various policies aimed at securing the economic interests of powerful nations, has done all over the world.

Much more than a do-good attitude and youthful enthusiasm is necessary to clear up the wreckage and prevent further abuses, and it's merely self-serving delusion to convince ourselves otherwise. Am I going to solve these complex political problems by teaching English in some Lao village? Of course not. By providing basic literacy skills, am I going to equip a few individuals to compete in a changing social and economic landscape and perhaps lead a more autonomous life and stand up against the powerful interests that will work to exploit them? Just maybe, a little.

And hopefully, someday, I’ll have the knowledge and influence to address underlying issues and root causes. Personally, I think this will involve changing attitudes and policies in my own country. What drives policies that exploit the people and resources of other nations? Habits of over-consumption and greed. Maybe we can do more to “save the world” by addressing these tendencies than by clicking “like” on a youtube video.'

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Hue, Thua Thien-Hue Province, Vietnam
13:12 local time
Kristian Isringhaus

We need to learn from the past. That is one of the reasons why historical education is so important. We should do everything in our power to make sure we do not repeat our mistakes or the mistakes our ancestors made. The holocaust is a great example of something we can learn from; the Vietnam War is another one.

I have to admit that I have been a little negligent in learning about the latter. Before travelling to South East Asia, I didn’t know too much about it, except maybe from a few movies. But even Wynne, who has enjoyed a great education in some of the finest high schools and universities of the United States, was not aware to what extent America screwed up the whole region for generations.

I did some research to fill the gap in my education and want to share my thoughts about it. Whether you think you could do with a little more knowledge about the Vietnam War or whether this will merely refresh what you already know—it can’t hurt to read on.

I do also see parallels between the war back then and the wars the United States is involved in right now. If I am not mistaken by seeing these parallels, then that means that other people, more important people, have refused to learn from the past, repeating mistakes that led the United States to one of the darkest hours of its history.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower came up with an almost ridiculously far-fetched justification to support France financially in the First Indochina War against Vietnam (the “Vietnam War” being the Second Indochina War). Ike explained that if Vietnam fell under a communist regime, the rest of Southeast Asia would probably soon follow, leaving Malaysia dangling off of it with no chance to oppose Marx’s demonic henchmen and once Malaysia “fell”, Indonesia could become communist, as well.

And then, god forbid, the United States would lose cheap access to Indonesia’s tin and tungsten. See any parallels to recent wars yet? Tin and tungsten? Oil?

The logic, however, is flawless, I suppose. If Vietnam becomes a communist country, other countries might become communist, too. All correct so far. He might have overlooked that other countries could become communist even without Vietnam following Marx’s ideas but that is not the point. The point is that according to the United Nations Charter which the US had signed only eight years before, neither a nation’s political orientation nor the access they provide to resources is a legal reason to attack a sovereign country.

However, the congress agreed to support France’s war against Vietnam with a total of no less than 400 billion dollars, which was a lot of money back then. In the last years of the war the US spent more on France’s battle to keep its illegally conquered colony than France itself did.

Shockingly, in 1954 the Vietnamese army defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and forced them to surrender unconditionally. The United Nations devised a plan to rebuild the country. According to the plan, it was to be divided temporarily until free elections in 1956 were supposed to find a single government for a reunified Vietnam. Guess who opposed those free elections: the United States and South Vietnam, who were scared that the people might vote for the popular communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Apparently, free elections are only approved by “the land of the free” if American interests are well taken care of. We will see again later that the United States will pick a tyrant over a democratically elected government in a foreign country any time as long as they can control that leader like a puppet.

Therefore, the US decided to support the inhumane, despotic dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled over southern Vietnam. More than 12,000 people who dared to differ in their religious or political views were slaughtered in the first few months of the Catholic ruler’s cruel regime. More and more people started to fight for their freedom and organized in militant opposition groups. Ho Chi Minh supported these people against the oppressive regime.

Reason enough for the US to engage in a war that would, over the next ten years, cost two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives. It also cost the American tax payer over 600 billion dollars (a lot of money back then), proving Eisenhower wrong in assuming that a war would be cheaper than the possibility of losing access to Indonesia’s tin and tungsten.

In the course of this war, the US probably broke every single one of the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and every article of the Geneva Protocol and the UN Charter, attacking a sovereign country only to preserve their own economic interests, using illegal weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange, and piling up crimes of war and crimes against humanity in an unprecedented manner. The dioxin in Agent Orange alters the DNA and is therefore passed down through the generations. To this day, babies are still born with horrible disfigurements, sometimes to healthy parents, since the diseases can skip generations.

Another thing that the world is widely unaware of is that during the war more bombs were actually dropped over Vietnam’s neighbor Laos than over Vietnam. The weapons used there were so-called cluster bombs, which are big containers holding about 100 tennis-ball-sized bombs. About 80 Million of those little explosives did not detonate and are still littering vast parts of eastern Laos. To this day, about 100 people get either killed or crippled by them every year, mostly kids playing outside.

But even when the war was lost for the US, they weren’t done doing evil in that region. Their war that they had taken also to Laos and Cambodia had destabilized Southeast Asia to an extent that enabled the Khmer Rouge to take over in Cambodia when the country was literally collapsing under the weight of Vietnamese refugees. The regime of the Khmer Rouge was likely one of the cruelest in the history of this planet, paralleled only maybe by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. In only three years and eight months of power they managed to kill directly or torture to death over two million of their own country’s men, women, and children.

The details of the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge are a different story. But here is my point: in 1979 the Vietnamese army marched into Phnom Penh to free the people of Cambodia from the cruelties of this regime. The Vietnamese never had the intention to take over Cambodia and wouldn’t have been able to afford that financially anyways. They simply freed their neighbors from their oppressive rulers and left when the country was somewhat stable enough to carry on on its own.

The joke, however, is that members of the Khmer Rouge still held the Cambodian seat at the United Nations until well into the 80s. Instead of getting prosecuted for their crimes against humanity, they enjoyed international power and represented in the international community the people they had so cruelly oppressed. How is that possible, you might wonder. For the simple reason that Cambodia was freed by the hated Vietnamese, the United States decided to support the Khmer Rouge despite the fact that they, too, were communists. And with Russia and China not opposing the Khmer Rouge for obvious reasons, for more than a decade they represented in front of the United Nations the interests of the country they had so horribly scarred.

These days, the remaining senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge are finally tried. Those trials, however, might soon get suspended due to international pressure. A few countries including the US and Britain are worried that some nasty details might be revealed that they had hoped to be forgotten.

Now, that is the past. We learn from it what unpredictable effects any military meddling with foreign countries can have, especially when you consider only your own interests and not those of the people you are meddling with.

Let’s look at today’s battlefields and see if we can see any parallels. Again, of course, we need to start at the beginning, need to look at when the meddling started. And we will see that a lot of the problems we see in the world today could have been avoided.

It all started, again, with the communists. Russia showed some interest in Iran, which, in the early 1950s, was led by a democratically elected, liberal regime. The Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, showed some great political understanding and was cruising on his way to turn Iran from a third world country controlled by British neo-imperialism into a thriving economical power.

It was again President Eisenhower who, in 1953, did not believe that Iran under Mossadegh would be strong enough to stand up against Russia. The US needed a puppet in the Iranian government, and therefore plotted a coup that brought down the democratic regime and put the Shah back in power. Once his reign started, the Shah then didn’t lose any time establishing a Gestapo-like secret police to suppress the freedom of his people.

Naturally, the Iranians didn’t like that, which gave fundamentalists fertile fields to find supporters. You need to understand that the regime the US ousted was the first and to this day only democratically elected one in the Iran. Instead of enjoying freedom and prosperity, the Persian people were once again oppressed by a dictator, during whose rule their hatred against the US grew steadily. In 1979 a revolution put an end to the Shah’s cruel regime and installed an Islamic theocracy under the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.

Uncle Sam, however, was not done yet. Unhappy about losing his puppet, he started looking about for someone who could oppose Iran, this new enemy that had, under the Shah’s rule, grown strong with American money and American weapons. A personable guy named Saddam Hussein seemed to be just the man to do the job. He grew so popular in America, that he was even named honorary citizen of the city of Detroit in 1980.

During the First Gulf War from 1980 – 1988, in which Iraq invaded Iran after being encouraged to do so by the US, America supported Iraq vastly with money, intelligence, and weapons. The latter included chemical ones like mustard gas, and biological ones like anthrax and bubonic plague (I need not mention that all of those are banned by the Hague Conventions).

Despite the great support from the US, the Iraqis eventually had to withdraw and accept the old borders, leaving Iran a sovereign country, its hatred towards America understandably fueled. Eventually, Saddam Hussein lost a marble or two, he invaded Kuwait, (that’s the one with the oil), and I suppose the rest is recent enough for everyone to remember.

But the inexplicable American fear of communism required fighting on more than one front. At the same time, on December 24th, 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Reason enough for the meddle-loving and communism-hating United States to arm the Taliban, a strong group of Mujahidin or “Holy Warriors”. Yes, for those who forgot: the United States armed and trained the Taliban with advanced weapons. Among those trained by the CIA at that time is one individual whose name stands out from the rest: Osama bin Laden. With American help, the Mujahidin managed to put up enough of a fight for Russia to lose its interest.

And what did the US do? They withdrew and left the problems of a well-equipped, fundamentalist, ideological and religious group that had been battle hardened to the Afghans and the Pakistanis”, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it on October 7th, 2009.

Now, my question is: does anybody remember radical fundamental Islamic terrorists from 40 years ago? I don’t. And are they really against the non-believers in general, or rather against the United States in particular? Well, I sure haven’t seen them bomb the Vatican yet, so I suppose the latter might be the case.

A lot of Americans think that Islamic regimes hate the US because its freedom and happiness makes their own people jealous and want to stand up for more rights. Unfortunately, this explanation is based on one of the greatest flaws in character Americans tend to show: arrogance. They hate us because we are the freest and best country in the world and everybody is jealous.

Consider this: there are other free and wealthy countries on this planet and many of them enjoy a higher standard of living than the US. Muslim extremists show little interest in attacking them, however. Thus I do not believe in the jealousy theory. I believe that America inflicted all the hate the Arabian world feels against them upon themselves by excessive meddling with other cultures, sovereign countries, and different political ideas. Their arrogance and constant striving for hegemony is what enrages people—not the freedom that they praise so highly, and that is at the same time so strongly restricted by the various domestic secret service agencies, the FBI being the first to mention.

Therefore, only a sign of peace from the original aggressor can put the problems in the region to an end.

I do not at all agree with the take on human rights in a lot of countries of the Near and Middle East, especially the status of women. But again, no one has the right to attack a sovereign country for that, and someone who supports cruel dictators over democratic governments the least of all. I also believe that all those countries were actually on a decent path to more human rights before being set back by American actions. It may now take a few decades, sadly, for them to get back on track.

By meddling around, imposing their codes of ethics onto people who don’t understand them, people with a completely different cultural background, trying to make everyone similar to them, the US has driven a lot of rather liberal Muslims into radicalism. They have given peaceful people a hated enemy and turned people that were on the verge of revolution into strong supporters of their respective regimes because these, however cruel they are, represent the interest of their people against the common enemy.

The next step is, inevitably, that hatred builds up on the other side as well, and the whole situation escalates. There has been a horrible trend in the USA over the past decade. Many Americans have begun demonizing the whole religion of Islam. When I tried to find a book on Islam on, the first ten hits I got were either about learning to love our Muslim brothers so we can more effectively convert them to Christianity, or how we must stop the violent and gruesome religion of Islam in order to save the “free world”. These days, everybody with a long beard is considered a possible terrorist in the US. Every project to build a mosque faces great opposition because the land of the free in which every man is equal is free only to conformists.

Overgeneralization is the worst enemy of peace and intercultural understanding, a strong helper for propaganda, and a potent instrument of the right wing. However, we only need to look at Indonesia, the world’s most populated Islamic country, to see that Islam itself is not an oppressive religion. More than 300 million Muslims live there, and there is no opposition to the recent redefining of the role of women. Despite the fact that societies historically are patriarchic, women these days are becoming more and more independent without facing any oppression.  We should not forget that women in the United States actually had a harder time liberating themselves. There are no forced marriages in Indonesia and men are not allowed to swap jail for a marriage with their rape victim. Many countries in the Arabian world are the same way, a fact of which few people are aware simply because these countries are not mentioned daily on Fox News.

Naturally, if you want to oppress your women you can find a part in the Quran that will, with proper interpretation, support you in your doing. You can interpret any text in a way that suits you. There are enough nutjobs in the United States that think the bible forbids homosexuality or abortion. What kind of a religion would Christianity be if that really were the case?

On the other hand, it’s barely even worth debating about the whole human rights issue, seeing that it is but a charade to justify wars that are led to protect economic interests. If the United States were serious about it, they should probably start in their own country, where the many secret services and investigation agencies pile one human rights violation onto another on a daily basis.

Concluding, I shall state that I believe President Obama has taken a big step towards peace and sent a great message of willingness to compromise to the Islamic world by pulling US troops out of Iraq and putting the departure from Afghanistan into motion. The wars did set back the human rights movements in those countries by decades, giving the fundamentalists more power and supporters than they ever had. The earlier the wars stop, the earlier those movements can start over again.