Somethings you can only understand after someone has passed

You will always wonder if you should have spend more time together.

I realize that no matter what, one will have have such questions on the back of one’s mind. Instead of using up mental space to ponder the “what ifs,” spending time to understand people after they have passed is a more valuable use of time. Going through my grandfather’s things, I found that he kept the ages of each one of us in the family following traditional Chinese methods of keeping track of years. It is not very obvious. If one doesn’t take the time to really observe, one could easily miss the fact that he was keep track of specific people. From this process, I learned that some things just aren’t spoken, There is always more to learn about each person and there will be some things that can only be learned from carefully going their work after they have deceased. Moreover, the way in which a person is understood can never be separated from the perspective or curation of the person trying to understand. My image of my grandfather will be very different from my father’s or my sister’s. Inevitably, we each strive to project onto the dead our hopes of what they ought to be.

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Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 2

I met the most persons while traveling in Cape Town. In a dodgy hostel that appears to lodge local druggies, I found a place that felt like home for the first time in weeks. Again, I was reminded of the tired cliche that home is not a physical place, but the company one is in.

First, I met one of my roommates, a reserved, independent German lady, who is traveling in Africa for the very first time. In one of the rare times of my life, we appeared to click almost immediately. She was inspired by my bravery and bemoaned her own 9-5 life. She was on holiday from her job in Frankfurt. I will never forget that moment when I told her how I visited one of the poorest slums in Lusaka, Zambia and how shockingly eye-opening the experience was. I relayed my observations, inarticulately, as words could not describe some of the things that I saw and feelings that I felt. To my surprise, she expressed a genuine sense of awe that I had the courage and the opportunity to visit these places. Partially, due to our conversation, she decided to extend her stay in South Africa. I found it really special that my experience inspired someone else to expand their horizons and open up to the great big world. Perhaps, I could join the ranks of some these 21st century vagabonds one day. 🙂 Her words were also very special to me. She told me that though we have met only very briefly, she feels that we can speak to each other from the heart. That statement alone tells me that German must be a more romantic language than English, because those words are something that I have wished to  express in a long time, albeit in the negative, but had never found any conventional English forms of expression.

One of the things that I enjoy the most about speaking with non-native English speakers or English speakers from different parts of the world, is how they use English to express concepts in their native cultures in a way that I never knew English could express. I expand my understanding of what English is capable of, from every person that I meet.

Ok, back to the story. In turn, at this dodgy hostel, I also met a solo-traveling elder lady from China. I have recounted my awe for this lady countless times now. Unlike the typical Chinese tour bus style, this 65-year-old lady from China who spoke very little English chose to go at it alone. She reminded me of the Chinese revolutionary spirit of the mid-1900s. She’s not one who has gotten comfortable and soft from China’s eager development. Her salt-and-pepper hair was in a short, almost-buzz cut. She spoke in a rush, ready to get on to the next task at hand. She dressed in a greyish-floral, pant-suit-esque attire from the revolutionary era with a water canteen hanging from her neck. Her movements were swift; she appeared healthy enough for rough traveling. Her story is such: she’s a retired schoolteacher from Jiangsu, a historically wealthy and cultured province that borders Shanghai. She has always dreamed of traveling the world and decided to finally let go of the fetters of social norms. Her husband prefers to play chess at home. Her plan was to visit a continent each year, stopping when she hits 70. First she traveled around China, then US, then Europe. Africa is her fourth continent so far. When asked about her travels in Europe, she described it as a piece of cake, given how well connected the countries are, by rail. Africa was her biggest challenge so far. She once waited four hours for a car to fill so that she could travel from one point to the next. I hope that I can have her courage at her age and similarly, never become too soft for rough solo travel.

Within two days or so, I also met a couple from New Zealand and Belgium who are rounding the African coastline by motorbike. Since, they were the first long-distance motorbikers that I had ever met, they left a huge impression on me. (Subsequently, I would go on to meet or observe countless many others, which unfortunately dampens the novelty a bit, though of course they are still incredible endeavors.) As a relatively mainstream (**cough cough capitalist) person prior to my travels, I thought everyone was career-driven, more or less. What most shocked me is that the couple quit their jobs in their mid-30s to embark on a 2-year motorbike voyage. I had always imaged the mid-30s to a prime time in one’s career. A time when things start to snowball and accelerate really fast. Plus, that is also a time to start a family, etc. A time to be a real, real adult. Many questions started to brew in the back of my mind. I, too, started to become aware of my fetters.

Where are you from?

I think when one lives “abroad,” there is some upside-down U-shaped curve about feelings towards one’s home country (or passport-holding country).

Before you leave the national borders of the land that you grew up in, you don’t consider that you could be from another country. “Where are you from?” is usually assumed to be the state or province that one is from.

Once you set foot outside, whether to study, live, or tour, at first, you feel proud to answer I’m _________ or I’m from _________ and state your nationality or home country with pride. It’s almost as if it is in these instances that you yourself become explicitly aware of your country of loyalty. In particular if you don’t look like what people usually assume to be the look of a person of such nationality–usually because of your race–then, in these instances you may feel you have to defend your legitimacy with an overcompensating force and each time someone accepts what you say without further questions is a triumph. It’s something that can warm your blood and make you feel more patriotism then you ever felt because sometimes in your own country you may have hunches about some portion of the population simply assuming you are not local and does not bother to inquire.

But hey, after living abroad for over a year, everything begins to change. The concept of being a citizen of a country seems increasingly arbitrary and elusive. “Where are you from?” is now answered with increasing nonchalance and you no longer give two shits about whether people question it or not. You are not bothered by a further explanation if need be. Everything goes. Without your overly confident answers, people feel free enough to even use the term “passport country” as a follow-up clarification. What does it matter, really, on a human level?

I am a citizen of the world. I believe in global interests. I don’t think war is ever the answer. Why do we draw boundaries?

Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 1

Intermittently, I will post snippets from my observations and interactions with travelers that I have met on trips to southern Africa in the past year. I have decided to affectionately refer to them as “21 Century Vagabonds,” which I hope is not offensive to any party.

The first traveler that I met on my journey was an American in his 60s who has been sailing solo around the world for the past ten years. We met in the lovely city of Johannesburg. Johannesburg has quite the reputation for crime, but for me it was the place that energized me and motivated me to travel on, keep seeing, and keep learning from travelers. Like in life, one’s impressions of a place is ultimately down to the people one meets. I was a lucky one. The white bearded and leather-skinned traveler had an easy and approachable attitude towards life that enticed me to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that he had seemingly found.

So, this is the story that he told me.

As a young man, he had spent a few years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. Following the international stint, he returned to America and worked as an engineer for Nissan all his life. Finally, he was offered early retirement at the age of 50. When he realized that living on his small sailboat was cheaper than living in his house in California combined with his lifelong goal of traversing the world, he sold his house and began his journey. First, he sailed south, hugging the coast, making it down to Latin America. He would dock at a place and live there for several months or years before moving on. For the last couple of years, he has been docked in Southeast Asia. He enjoys the tropical climate of Indonesia. Every year, he returns home to celebrate Christmas with his elderly parents.

“Wonderful” is the only way that I could describe my response. I was awestruck when he relayed his story. Without much prior sailing experience, he simply just up and went.

I want to keep these stories of carefree bravery, always.

Moonlight

Got on the bandwagon rather late and only just watched the film, Moonlight, tonight. If you have not seen it yet, I urge you to. You are short-changing yourself and your human experience. **Forewarning of potentially not-so-PC language to follow.** Moonlight is the first all-black cast film that I have seen that transcends race and other categories of identity politics, to be, above all, about the human experience. Watching the film is itself a human experience. It will make you engage within yourself and consume you with questions and just pure awe. It is a film that makes me wonder if I am not getting the most out of this human life by not having explored my potential in art more. It is also during these moments that I know what is art and why art is important. Art is about expression. Not any expression. But, the ability to express what a lot of folks want to, yet cannot express well. And it’s about expressing in a manner that captures you, captures your senses, and makes you question your values and your premises.

Americanah

To all those interested in Africa or humanity, broadly, please check out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. It is novel that has affected me greatly. It has been eating me inside out, almost like how Camus’s The Stranger did for me in high school. Adiche’s novel resonates with me and at the same time, challenges me. It raises a very personal question for me, that is, to what extent am I being authentic? Instead of simply living life as me, am I creating various eccentricities as a means to feign authenticity?

Forgetting to breathe

So far, I have found at least one similarity between Third and First World living, that is my forgetting to breathe.  However, the differences behind it are starkly different in each setting. Living in a city in the Third World means walking on dirt pavements or no pavements, directly adjacent to passing vehicles, and constantly being enveloped in a mist of dirt, dust, exhaust fumes, smoke, and other pollutants. After a while, I became so accustomed to holding in my breath as soon as my nostrils caught a hint of strong exhaust or backyard trash-burning that I found myself breathing less, taking shallower breaths, or forgetting to breathe from time to time. Perhaps, my body adjusted to a new equilibrium of lower oxygen intake?

Back in the First World, today I have realized that I am also forgetting to breathe as much I believe I should. In the life of endless to-do lists and ceaseless ways to be more productive, breathing almost takes too much. Perhaps, that is why so-called mindfulness seminars and meditative practices such as yoga are so popular in First World cities? Through the development process we may lose some aspect of our primal humanity in the quest of becoming a superior homo rational?

Divisions

New experiences and knowledge brings us closer to humanity lived in ways differently than understood to us previously, yet also breeds division between our previous way of life and people therein. How to establish balance between the new and old? Is there a way to keep both or is it a zero sum game to some extent?

Communication is a beautiful thing

There are not as many moments in life where there is raw and forthcoming two-way communication as there ought to be. It’s beautiful and liberating. I hope everyone can practice this more often, losing our facades and just let ourselves and let others be.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These inalienable rights as put forth in the Declaration of Independence by our founding fathers have become truisms. But, being a truism doesn’t mean that these freedoms are always there for us to enjoy. Yes, there can be forces from the outside which threaten these rights, but do not underestimate the forces from within. Sometimes, unbeknownst to our conscious, we create an internal system of shackles that impede our potential freedom and happiness in this life. Let your inner authenticity thrive.